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The lowly alley — shaper of Chicago

All, hail the lowly alley! Shaper of Chicago, home of garbage and gardens, danger and Dumpsters, the arena of kickball, hoops and gossip, of scavengers and shortcuts, of neighbors and rodents.

Chicago’s alleys are older than the city itself. They were laid out as part of a 58-block grid in 1830, three years before Chicago was incorporated as a town and seven before it was chartered as a city.

Chicago is prettier and greener because of its alleys, with much of the messiness of urban life moved around back out of sight. Tree-lined parkways line its streets instead of garbage cans. Think of Manhattan. Trash bins crowd many of New York City’s sidewalks for lack of alleys.

Yet, by the early 1900s, when the suburban development boom began, alleys were thought of as dirty, ugly, disease-ridden places. So, as a selling point, new subdivisions boasted that they were alley-less. Of course, what this meant was that, once a week, the owners of those new homes had to drag their garbage out to the curb for pickup. They still do.

Because Chicago is so flat and its streets are built on a grid, it is the alley capital of the world. Chicago has 1,900 miles of alleys, compared with 1,363 miles in Dallas, its closest competitor.

The longest Chicago alley goes for blocks and blocks before ending at a brick wall, expressway or some other obstruction. It is the alley north of North Avenue that runs for 2.9 miles between Cicero and Neva Avenues in the Austin neighborhood.

Two alleys, both about 1,600 feet long, share the city title for the longest alley through a single block — the north-south alley east of Cicero Avenue, running between Devon and Hiawatha Avenues on the Far North Side, and the north-south alley west of Malta Street, running between 99th Street and a cross alley just north of 103rd Street in the Southwest Side neighborhood of Beverly.

Chicago’s alleys today are sparkling clean and tidy, compared with a century ago.

Bright lights, installed first in the mid-1960s (during an election year), help cut down on crime, but many alleys are still dicey places to enter in the dark. The large garbage bins that began replacing the old 55-gallon drums in 1984 have drastically reduced the city’s rat population — but, while down, the vermin aren’t out.

Alleys bisect well over 90 percent of Chicago’s streets and are integral parts of the lives of every Chicagoan.

One example: In 1997, Ald. Ray Suarez (31st) came up with what he thought was a smart idea to fight gangs — impose a fine of $100 to $500 on anyone caught playing basketball in a Chicago alley.

No way, said the basketball players, and the mothers of the basketball players, and the wives of the basketball players, and the neighbors who liked watching the games. No way.

Suarez backed down.

Patrick T. Reardon

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