Residents decorated the alley off of 13th Street north of Palm Lane in Phoenix; photo by Angelina Aragon

The Space Between Us

Written by Lauren Loftus Category: Valley News Issue: November 2017
Group Free

Alleyways have been part of Phoenix’s urban design since the beginning, but they’ve gotten a bad rap along the way. What does the future hold for these dusty passageways?

What’s in an alley? Would that which we call an alley by any other name smell as putrid? And collect old mattresses, grow weeds as tall as a child, and provide dark corners for shady figures to lurk in our cultural consciousness?

Pop culture tells us alleys are places where drug deals and muggings occur. (Batman’s parents were killed in the subtly named Crime Alley, after all.) It seems simple then: Get rid of alleys and you get rid of problems. But in the Phoenix Valley, where hundreds of miles of alleyways snake through older neighborhoods, hiding unsightly community waste bins and utility access points, and providing sheltered shortcuts for pedestrians, not everyone is on board with shuttering these passageways.

Phoenix real estate agent Luke Bevans is in Camp Close ‘Em. “It’s unbelievable the amount of activity that takes place in the alley – it’s a highway for criminals to remain hidden at night, a lot of theft… there’s a really big problem with illegal dumping,” says Bevans, a member of the Royal Palm neighborhood council in North Central Phoenix.

After a man jumped over a neighbor’s fence and exposed himself to two young girls last year, Bevans and other neighborhood leaders called for closing the alleys. This June, Phoenix City Council approved a one-year pilot program in Royal Palm in which locked gates at the ends of alleys will be installed and trash collection will be moved to the front curb. Only residents and utilities workers will get key access. The gate application requires consent from a majority of homeowners and will be installed at their expense. Jordan Greenman, City of Phoenix abandonment coordinator, says the Gated Alley Program Pilot is “a small-scope study to see what happens… we’ve had a lot of issues with illegal activities behind homes... this is the city taking a new approach.”

Michael Anderson, president of the historic midtown Coronado Neighborhood Association, says the “alley issue” comes up every so often at board meetings – usually when a crime happens. “We had a break-in – they came in through the alley... Because the police don’t actively patrol alleys.” He also points to a “terrible” incident in mid-August when a dead body was dumped near 10th and Oak streets. Though Anderson says he’s remaining neutral in the debate over alleys, board member Patrick Jordan says “the real solution is not closing off alleys. It’s block watch, increased police presence, neighbors watching out for neighbors.”

It’s certainly a mixed bag. Kevin Riley, a computer programmer with the Arizona Department of Revenue, says the alleys in his Arcadia neighborhood “are great for trash collection… or as a shortcut from one place to another.” Meanwhile, an unscientific poll of this reporter’s neighbors in south Tempe on the community website Nextdoor.com found most preferred to keep alleys open, if only for the ease of trash pickup. Respondents also noted the not-so-legal practice of turning the alley into a kind of bazaar – unwanted coffee tables or StairMasters will be  gone come Saturday morning when foragers drive through in pickup trucks.

Alleys have always played a role in the design and layout of the city of Phoenix, dating back to the original 1870 survey of the town site, according to Vince Murray with Arizona Historical Research. Indeed, alleys have been integral to communities since “humans decided to live together in cities and towns,” says urban designer Tiffany Halperin, who lives in Downtown’s historic Garfield neighborhood. They became spots for waste disposal so fronts of buildings and homes could be tree-lined and more comely, Halperin says; they served as secondary entrances to buildings; and they doubled as pathways, safer for pedestrians than main roadways. “But somewhere in the late 1800s, alleys started to become synonymous with undesirable beings and uses,” she says.

Halperin’s company Urban Culture Design won second in the This is Phoenix 2016 design competition for its proposal to turn Phoenix alleyways into pedestrian and bike corridors. Closing the alleys, Halperin says, leaves their maintenance up to residents rather than having a partner in the city. “But what if they become different… what if they become pedestrian corridors or bike trails or beautiful garden spaces?”

Downtown Makeover
A year ago this month, the City of Phoenix Planning and Development Department approved an alley activation pilot program in which businesses could convert parts of alleys into cleaner, safer spaces. The program allows for a range of improvements, at businesses’ expense, from murals to seating/dining areas.

City customer advocacy program manager Eric Buskirk says Phoenix is now working through details of its first permittee at Adams and Central. “We haven’t permitted anything yet, [but the developers are looking to] add lighting, possible building exits, walk-up windows and outdoor seating.”