On The Morning Shift today, while discussing Mayor Emanuel’s ambitious plan to massively expand high speed internet connectivity throughout the city, Chicago’s Chief Technology Officer John Tolva called alleys “the unsung hero in Chicago.” He was making reference to the city’s ability to string fiber optic cables aerially, rather than underground, but it got me thinking about the part that alleyways play in Chicago’s unique personality. How has the city been shaped by the small, nameless veins that connect its major arteries?
That imagery may seem a little florid, but it’s important to understand that Chicago is, at its heart, a city of alleys. They predate almost every identifiable landmark, stretching out over 1,900 miles, helping to ease congestion throughout the city. While the lakeshore and the el are embedded in the city’s consciousness, alleys touch something deeper. They’re so ubiquitous, and so easily overlooked, that they begin to occupy the darker corners of our urban subconscious. As such, alleys have been derided and dismissed, used as metaphors for the backstreet deals and corruption that have become cliché in Chicago politics. Over the past century, the image of the alley has been one of illicit dealings, overseen by the rats criss-crossing from dumpster to overflowing dumpster. But, that image is changing, and Tolva isn’t the only one beginning to see Chicago’s oldest, darkest feature under new light.
For the past two years, the city has been spearheading an initiative to green Chicago’s alleyways, using new porous asphalt to filter rainwater, keeping it from polluting the city’s rivers and streams. It’s ambitious and practical, and, since its inception, has been used as a model for cities looking for creative ways to encourage sustainable urban development. A beautiful use for something so often seen as useless.
It’s hard to know if alleys will ever garner the respect Tolva and others think they deserve, but their ever-evolving function within the city will, at the very least, help push them from our collective subconscious to somewhere a little brighter. Tolva’s humming the melody, time will tell if the rest of the city decides to hum along.