Sunday, April 19, 2009

Name That Alley: Named Alleys and Alley Gates in CARAG?

I’ve been spending some recent quality time with the CARAG Neighborhood Master Plan, a document filled with both innovative and exciting ideas, as well as some, well, less-enthralling ideas. The CARAG Neighborhood Plan was completed in 2000, and while the authors acknowledge that the details may need updating from time to time, the document itself was intended to guide the neighborhood through several decades of growth and change. In other words, it might be up-to-date, but it’s not yet out-of-date. Over the next month or so I’m going to explore some of the plan’s highlights (or lowlights, depending on the topic) and see how the plan stacks up today. Documents of this sort can be extremely useful, and it’s worth reading for anyone who is a former, current, or future CARAG resident, or who is simply interested in learning more about how one Minneapolis (and Uptown) neighborhood envisions its future. And while I don’t agree with all of the concepts, I give CARAG much credit for being willing to make some truly creative suggestions and for not “playing it safe” by not always simply sticking with the status quo or always sticking with the traditional, safe, but sometimes boring design or planning options.

So, that said, one of the more realistic yet creative portion of the Plan were a series of proposals to increase community “ownership” of alleys. As described in the plan itself (page 4-23):

The master plan suggests that each alley be named – essentially reinforcing the ability of neighbors to take control of the space. Naming the alley, and then creating an appropriate sign, is the responsibility of each block. The sign – an alley ‘gate’ – is located at each end of the alley and marks the mid-block point of each east/west block… creation of the gate and its maintenance would be the responsibility of the gate and its maintenance
would be the responsibility of the neighbors who share the alley.”

Additional suggestions include the use of a CARAG artist-in-residence to work with neighbors to create the gate, as well as the incorporation of plantings and light fixtures into the gate itself. NPR money could be made available for the funding of these gates. As a side note, the plan also spends time discussing the benefits of alley-oriented “granny flats” (which I think is a wonderful idea), tearing down fences to create “visual connections between back door and alleys,” the renovation of garages, and the creation of ornate “garbage gazebos” to hold garbage cans and recycling bins.

I love alleys. I like their utilitarian nature, and the fact that they have a very different feel to them than do the streets. For kids, they often offer a new play space, somewhere where kids from the block can run around, maybe shoot some hoops, and generally enjoy the benefits that come from sharing the quasi private-public nature of the shared alleys. I think that they do contribute a great deal to CARAG’s character (and to the character of all the Minneapolis neighborhoods that have them), and that they do offer a sort of “final frontier” for forging new and improving old neighborhood relationships.

When I lived in CARAG most of our neighborhood activity was centered around the people who lived on our street; when I said “my block” I meant those houses that looked out onto the main street, not the houses that were shared an alley. Anything that can be done to build relationships with neighbors sharing an alley is a good thing; it is these neighbors, after all, who are the most likely to observe potential criminal activity (vandalism, garage theft, etc.). CARAG – and Uptown – residents will benefit from knowing both their neighbors on all sides. The CARAG plan is on target with that goal. I don’t, however, buy into the concept of named alleys or alley gates.

What’s in a name?
I once lived on a block with a named alley (not in Minneapolis). The name had no impact on neighborhood relationships, or on the sense of community; mostly it just served to confuse people who saw it listed on maps and were led to believe that the “Mission Alley” was more substantial than it was, inevitably envisioning a street of some sort and not just a dirt path leading to some garages. I imagine that some neighbors would love the process of naming an alley, but it’s not an easy thing to just let a group of residents (and are we talking homeowners or renters? Both?) get together to decide on a name. Just look back at the relatively recent discussion in CARAG about changing the neighborhood’s name to Wellstone – the naming of an alley could easily spark the same sort of controversy, just on a smaller scale. Maybe the process of getting together to discuss name and gate design would bring about an opportunity to build relationships, but given that many neighbors would lack the patience necessary to sit around in meeting after meeting debating the merits of this name or that name, let alone choice of a design, I don’t think that this is the best use of time or of NRP money.

An ongoing responsibility
If an alley is successfully named, and an attractive gate installed, can we trust that the residents of a certain block are really going to maintain it? True, the neighbors initially involved may be committed to the gate and its ideals, but CARAG has a high residential turnover rate. Renters come and go, as do homeowners. For certain designs this doesn’t matter - time and neglect can even enhance the charm of some materials – but for anything elaborate involving lights or plantings or anything else involving regular maintenance, or infusions of money, this could get tricky.

Current status
I haven’t heard anything about this recently, let alone noticed any elaborate alley gates or alley names, so I’m assuming that this project has been set on the back burner for now. Current funds are available for front yard lighting and for block club activities; block improvements could include efforts to enhance alleys, but that’s not the sole focus.

Although I think named alleys and formal alley gates are a little silly, I think there’s a lot of merit to the idea of reclaiming alley space for community purposes. Enhancing the alley experience – for safety, community-building, environmental, and aesthetic purposes – is certainly a valid and admirable goal. And while I might not live off of “Remington Alley” anytime soon, that doesn’t mean that we should stop looking carefully at Uptown-area alleys and their potential.


  1. Forget about naming alleys. For that matter, forget about *having* alleys--or streets. Let's rip out Uptown's roadways and replace them: not with grass (as an asphalt-hating activist at a neighborhood meeting once suggested), but with canals. Turn Uptown into a "Venice of the North" where residents can swim in the summer, ice-skate during the winter, and chat with their neighbors while fishing from their front yards. Instead of carpooling, let's have carp-pooling. To paraphrase Joni Mitchell, "save paradise--pull down a parking lot."

  2. Hmm. Canals. Maybe NRP money could be used to issue each household a kayak or a canoe; not only would they take up less space than cars (effectively solving the parking "problem") but they would also encourage physical activity in an increasingly sedentary world. Introducing native fish into the canals would also allow local residents to eat locally. Canal boats, in the grand tradition of those found in Europe, could find space along the canals, thereby adding affordable housing options to the neighborhood. Pizza delivery could come via gondola. This idea has some potential.