Thursday, April 23, 2015


In Philly we have big streets, like Market Street; we have regular streets, like Walnut Street; and we have little streets, like Addison in, say, the 1700 block. I love this block. It's a narrow street, with no curbside parking allowed. The trees are decorated year-round with strings of white Christmas tree lights. (I'm told they're LEDs, so this exercise may even be reasonably green.)

Sometimes these little streets are called alley-streets, but we also have genuine alleys, which are even narrower and rarely beautiful. I would like to talk to you today about the alleys of Philadelphia.

Matchbox Cars
Let's have a look at the 1700 block of Waverly, which lies directly north of Addison. Here it is, tucked in between Addison and Pine, which is also a very attractive block. Waverly is a mess. The main culprit is the parked cars, which are shoehorned at odd angles into small spaces behind the houses that face Pine and Addison. This little alley looks somewhat like my living room floor years ago, after my son was finished playing with his Matchbox cars, and before we had agreed to clean up.

There are alleys like this all over the neighborhood. We tend not to notice them.  Why walk up 1700 Waverly when you can walk up 1700 Addison?  I only started paying attention when I was working on the inventory of parking spaces for the neighborhood, and I had to walk up these alleys. That was where the parking was.

I understand that the space available is frequently very tight.  But is this an excuse for turning a whole street (alley, excuse me) into a hodgepodge? After all, we're talking about the backyards of some very nice buildings.  I can vouch for the front facades being nice, and the houses I've been inside have generally been quite nice as well. But then we walk out the back door into an inartful jumble of architectural afterthoughts.

It's a shame that some of the city's prettiest streets are backed up by these automotive shantytowns. We might as well put up a sign: Abandon All Standards, Ye Who Enter Here.

So that's the way it is, but I don't think it's necessary. All we really need to do, I think, is pay a little attention.

The same thing goes on up in the Central Business District, only there the main culprit is trash, not cars. It is apparently a Philadelphia custom for merchants and restaurateurs to store their trash in the alley. While I'm sure this delights the city's population of rats, I, as a human, find these alleys quite distasteful.  Have you ever walked down the 1700 block of Moravian? It's far from the worst, but it's bad enough. And there it is, sandwiched between Walnut, our premier shopping street, and Sansom, home to the Sofitel Hotel (they're from France, you know) and also a very nice row of small shops and restaurants.

F for Functional
I've actually developed a grading scale for our alleys. If you're interested, feel free to use it as you walk around town. You don't really have to walk down the alleys. You can just peek from the corner.

Here's the scale:
F - functional. A place to stow cars or stash trash. No redeeming qualities.
D - depressing. Many defects, but not the worst.
C - crummy. A few defects, lacks cohesive vision.
B - borderline. No defects, but doesn't spark joy.
A - actually attractive.  A good, integrated design showing imagination and possibly a bit of whimsy.

I could hand out a lot of Fs at this point, but instead let's look at a block that almost has its act together -- the 2100 block of Cypress.

In fact, I'll give the south side of this street an A. The north side is a C, but it would be a B if two garages with derelict but functional facades were fixed. However, to become an A the homeowners would have to get together. On the south side there is a theme with variations. On the north side there is cacophony.

Perhaps the Center City Residents' Association could branch out from horticulture and have an alley contest.  I think I'd withhold a prize for best alley, at least for a few years, but perhaps award several prizes in the most improved category.

Progress is possible, folks.  It doesn't have to be this way.  Just pull the camera back from the neighborhood where I live and take a wider shot that includes all of Center City.  There are many lovely alleys in places like Washington Square West and Society Hill.  There's even the grand-daddy of them all, Elfreth's Alley, the oldest continuously occupied residential street in the country.

Or we could pull back further and then zoom in on Pasadena, California.  Pasadena's downtown, known as Old Pasadena, is Professor Donald Shoup's shining example of a successful Parking Benefit District.

In his book The High Cost of Free Parking, Professor Shoup recommends Parking Benefit Districts as a crucial key to solving our parking problems and improving our neighborhoods. PBDs receive a portion of the parking revenue generated within the district and spend it on neighborhood improvements.  Generally Professor Shoup recommends fixing the sidewalks, planting trees, and burying utility wires.

In Old Pasadena there was an additional improvement opportunity -- the alleys. Meter money, says the Professor, "helped convert what had been a commercial skid row into one of the most popular tourist destinations in Southern California." (Shoup, High Cost, 2011 edition, p. xxviii.)

I've been to Pasadena, and I've seen the alleys.  They're really nice -- "safe, functional walkways with access to shops and restaurants," as the Professor puts it. (Shoup, p. 406.)

Stone Street
If we come back to the East Coast, we can find a particularly attractive alley in Lower Manhattan. It's called Stone Street. According to the indefatigable researchers at Wikipedia, an alliance of property owners, city agencies, and do-gooders "transformed Stone Street from a derelict back alley into one of Downtown's liveliest scenes.  Restored buildings, granite paving, bluestone sidewalks and period street lights set the stage for the half dozen restaurants and cafes, whose outdoor tables are very popular on warm summer nights."

I was there with my brother a while ago.  It was a pleasant morning, and I recall having cappuccino and a croissant on the cobblestones. Lovely.

On Stone Street we also encounter the curious phenomenon of the two-faced restaurant.  It seems almost all the places that open onto Stone Street also open onto one of the neighboring streets. This takes a little getting used to, but my sense is that two entrances on two streets can be good for business.

I know of one two-faced restaurant in Philadelphia.  It's called Bru: Craft and Wurst, and it's located on the 1300 blocks of Chestnut and Drury.  If you stand on Chestnut and look in, you can see McGillin's on the other side of Drury Street.  It's an unusual view.  Ordinarily you can't see through a city block.  Too much stone in the way.

Moravian Again
Which brings us back to the 1700 block of Moravian Street in Philly, nestled quietly between Walnut and Sansom.

Time has not been kind to this block of Moravian, but guess what? Virtually all of the buildings on Moravian seem to extend through, either to Walnut or to Sansom.  On the south side there are a bunch of blocked up doors and windows just waiting to be daylighted, and on the north side a number of the buildings have actual front facades, instead of the familiar turn-your-back-on-the-back-alley treatment.

Does it have the potential of Stone Street?  Probably not.  But this block of Moravian sits in the lap of two of the hottest retail blocks in Philly -- the 1700 block of Walnut, and 18th Street from Walnut to Chestnut.

I look forward to a tranquil cappuccino amidst the happy bustle of commerce.  Probably not soon, but I'm a patient guy.

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