Shadow City: How Chicago Became the Country’s Alley Capital

Shadow city: How Chicago became the country’s alley capital
Shadow city: How Chicago became the country’s alley capital

Shadow City: How Chicago Became the Country’s Alley Capital

WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.

When’s the last time you paid attention to alleys?

Chances are, unless you’re taking out garbage or trying to squeeze a U-Haul back there, you rarely think about the narrow lane that can cut through a block.

Here’s at least one reason to take note: Chicago is the alley capital of the country, with more than 1,900 miles of them within its borders. (If you left Chicago by plane and flew southwest for that distance, you’d end up just shy of Mexico City.)

Chicago architect Dan Weese would never take his alley for granted. To him, the alley is a many-splendored thing. Dan grew up in Lincoln Park, a North Side neighborhood with plenty of alleys, and he spent a lot of time playing in the alley behind his family’s rowhouse. As he puts it, the alley was the “rec room of the block.”

“I remember on Saturday mornings, all the garage doors would open up, and people would be working on cars, or working on a woodworking project, or taking the garbage out, and you could have a relationship with them,” he says. “It was very different than the people you would meet on your street.”

For Dan, alleys aren’t just utilitarian service lanes. They’re an important social gathering place — an informal parallel to the street out front. He’s been thinking about them so much, that he sent us this question:

How was it decided that Chicago should have alleys?

Well, the answer to Dan’s question got us more than we bargained for. It involves a story that spans centuries, and that same story not only explains Chicago’s enormous network of alleys but also why some parts of the region are conspicuously alley-free.

Hip to be square

What gives? Why all the alleys — and why the divide between Chicago communities with and without them?

According to Michael Martin, alley expert and professor of landscape architecture at Iowa State University, the “why alleys” question is easy to answer. You just have to go back to the late 1700s, decades before Chicago was founded. America was young, and had hardly touched any of its newest territories to the west.

“There’s one thing you can do without having to explore all of it,” says Martin. “Lay a grid over that giant swath of land, and divide it up in ways that you can then take that land and you can sell it, you can deed it over to people.”

The federal government’s National Land Ordinance of 1785 imposed a massive grid over everything west of the Ohio River, dividing uncharted territory into square townships, each 36 square miles in size. Those townships were then sliced into progressively smaller sections, all the way down to the city block. 

“As you think about finer and finer scales of design, what’s happening is those squares are being infilled and infilled,” says Martin. “The big grid was always the framework within which people developed things, and that leads to towns having square blocks, and ultimately the alley inside of that block.”    

This expanding grid eventually hit the Chicago area.

According to cartographer and Chicago history buff Dennis McClendon, alleys had become so commonplace in the American West that the Illinois General Assembly “simply expected it to happen in Chicago.”
Thompson's plat map of Chicago in 1830, showing alleys. (Source: Alfred Theodore Andreas, 1884. History of Chicago.)

The particulars came into play with the Illinois & Michigan Canal. In the 1820s, the U.S. Congress had granted the state of Illinois enough land to dig a canal to connect Lake Michigan and the Illinois River. The state planned to finance the construction by establishing towns along the canal and selling the land to developers.

The I&M Canal Commission hired surveyor James Thompson to lay out Chicago at the eastern end of the canal in 1830. To attract prospective land buyers, the General Assembly ordered that the new town of Chicago be “subdivided into town lots, streets, and alleys, as in their best judgment will best promote the interest of the said canal fund.”

Thompson was apparently a law-abiding man: His town plan for Chicago had 58 blocks, and every single one had an alley.

The practical side

As it turns out, it’s a good thing that Thompson planned Chicago with alleys. The city was a filthy, stinky, disease-ridden place in those days. Rear service lanes were essential for collecting trash, delivering coal, and stowing human waste — basically, keeping anything unpleasant away from living quarters.

“This was one of the reason why alleys have this dark and nasty reputation,” says Martin. “They were very much the grimy service part of daily life. It wasn’t expected that this would be a well-maintained landscape; it was kind of a landscape of raw utility.”

In that same vein, McClendon theorizes that widespread horse ownership in the West translated into a lot of horse dung in the city, which would’ve encouraged city planners to include alleys. “The horse has the inflow and outflow problems,” McClendon says. “You have to bring in a lot of hay, you have to muck out a lot of manure. … That’s one of the reasons that you want to have a service lane that’s segregated from where the womenfolk of the town are walking, or other places that you want to be more tidy and well-kept.”

Riverside and the beginning of the end of Chicago-area alleys

For its boom years in the 1800s, Chicago was an alley monster; it planned new blocks with alleys, annexed towns with alleys, and added territory to its alley-riddled gridiron. But all grid things must come to an end, and soon communities started popping up without alleys.

The first of those communities arrived in 1869. That year, Frederick Law Olmsted — the father of landscape architecture (and who later played a huge role in Chicago’s landscape) — planned the community of Riverside, which was situated on what was considered to be the far western outskirts of the Chicago region. It was the first planned suburb in America, and the earliest sign of divergence from Chicago’s alley trend.

Olmsted's Riverside community was intentionally designed without alleys.

Constance Guardi, from the Riverside Historical Commission, takes me on a walking tour of the town. As we stroll down winding, tree-lined streets, she points to old, beautiful houses set back behind lush, rolling lawns. Guardi explains that Olmsted wanted to create the town of the future: a community that combined the peacefulness of the country with the luxury of the city.

“The plan was so that it would meander, rather than that hustle and bustle,” she says. “This was to be relaxed. … So that you would be able to really just have a quiet and lovely life.”

She says Olmsted’s master plan for Riverside didn’t include alleys, because they just weren’t necessary in the wide open spaces of the Illinois countryside. It so happens that Guardi is exactly the kind of person Olmsted had in mind when he planned Riverside. She grew up in a Chicago neighborhood with alleys, and she never cared for them.

“I’ll tell you why I didn’t like alleys,” she says. “They were dirty! … Everybody’s garbage was out there all the time.”

For years after it was established, Riverside was an outlier. Other suburbs that popped up around it in the years to come — like Berwyn and Cicero — followed Chicago’s lead with alleys and a grid. Look at a map of the area today, and Riverside is a squiggly green island in a sea of squares.

Where the alley ends

By the turn of the century, though, more city planners jumped on Olmsted’s bandwagon and began designing communities to be beautiful and clean — counterpoints to the density and industry they wanted to avoid.

“Instead of the old boring grid of the national survey and of the old town,” Martin says, “we’re now going to do curving streets because they’re modern and they’re different.”

As a sign of the times, a 1913 development competition in the suburbs of Chicago yielded almost no designs with alleys; instead, the proposals featured curvilinear streets, and blocks with interior courtyards. (The account is contained in a book authored by alleys scholar Grady Clay.) In one proposal for the contest, Frank Lloyd Wright advocated for the abolition of alleys.

Martin says the death of the alley came about from this shift in urban planning principles, but other factors contributed, too, including improvements in sanitation technology.

“Once you have systems like sanitary sewers or garbage collection that can be done in an efficient way, you don’t really have to have an alley,” he says. “So we decided that the street was capable of handling all that stuff.”

Then, the automobile came along. In 1920 there were about 8 million car owners in the country; by the end of the decade that number jumped to 23 million. Widespread auto ownership meant there were fewer stables and less horse poop in the city. More importantly, the automobile increased the mobility of working Americans, allowing people to live way out in the sparse suburbs, where the house lots were spacious and streets didn’t have to conform to a dense city grid.

“Now it becomes possible to build cities at lower densities, [with] bigger lawns, and bigger landholdings for each house,” says McClendon. “And that allows you to have a side garage or a side driveway. You no longer have to have the vehicle access through this service lane in the rear.”

As you move further away from the city, alleys start falling away.

The move away from alleys in the early 20th century — combined with the end of Chicago’s growth via annexation — solidified the divide between alley places and non-alley places in the Chicago region. While new suburban towns and outlying communities forged bravely into an alley-free world, Chicago’s historic core and the older suburbs were stuck with their alleys.

You can see the effects today. Within the Chicago city limits, 90 percent of residential blocks have alleys. But as you move from the city center, alleys begin to fall away. Not immediately, mind you. Suburbs like Oak Park, Evanston, and Blue Island are chock-full of alleys, but in suburban communities like Naperville and Tinley Park, alleys are much harder to find.

Repurposing a relic

The role of Chicago’s alleys has obviously changed; even though the city doesn’t need alleys for the same reasons it did back in the 1800s, they’re still essential parts of the city environment. Today, residents put recycling back there instead of piles of horse dung. And, utilities deliver phone service and electrical power through alleys rather than coal.

Plus, after centuries of building up around them, alleys are pretty hard to get rid of. A few American cities have instituted “alley vacation” programs. They’re not so fun as they sound: The programs basically involve vacating the alley as a public service lane. For the program to work, however, every alley-abutting homeowner has to agree to extend their property line into the middle of the alley. Not many cities have followed through with the administrative nightmare.

A Chicago alley retrofitted with permeable pavers that prevent flooding and allow water to seep into the soil. (Flickr/Center for Neighborhood Technology)

Instead of eliminating them, Chicago is reimagining its alleys. In 2006, Chicago became one of the first cities in the country to conduct a “green alley” program, resurfacing alleys to prevent runoff and decrease solar heat absorption. In the last several years, the Chicago Loop Association has been experimenting with alleys as social spaces, using them to host pop-up art events.

Martin says Chicago’s current approach holds promise for the future, and many contemporary urban planners and architects agree. The New Urbanist school of thought considers them to be both useful infrastructure and an important part of the cultural landscape.

“Now you see people designing and building things where the alley is actually a functioning social space, a gathering space, where the neighbors can actually connect with each other in their own somewhat intimate urban narrow space instead of on the street,” says Martin. “So you have a two-sided situation in these neighborhoods, and I think that’s a very positive development.”

Questioner Dan Weese

More about our questioner

“My curiosity about the alleys came about because it’s part of the landscape and it’s one of these things that you don’t really think about,” says Dan Weese. “It’s in the background, but it actually forms a really important part [of the city].”

As for any takeaways from our reporting? He says it’s especially interesting that the alley hasn’t become entirely irrelevant.

“There was this structure that apparently came about because the folks in the canal commission thought it was a good idea to put in alleys, and then human behavior adapts to that and morphs it,” he says.

Architecture happens to run in Dan’s veins. His uncle is none other than renowned architect Harry Weese. (Curious City profiled one of Harry Weese’s buildings, the Seventeenth Church of Christ, Scientist.) Most of Dan’s cousins are architects or designers and his parents founded an award-winning architecture firm — a firm that he now works for.

When he was a kid, Dan played kick-the-can and raced go-carts in the alley behind his house. He also broke a lot of stuff back there.

“You could do more destructive, less socially acceptable things in the alley,” he says. “It was just a little more rough and ready, and you could kind of let your hair down a little bit.”

Now 50 years old, Dan lives with his wife and three children, just three blocks from the rowhouse he grew up in. Unfortunately the couple lives in a highrise, and the alley isn’t nearly as good for playing as the one he remembers.

That is, Dan’s all grown up, and he prefers nerding out about alleys and their history, rather than destroying things in them.

Download our data

Want to make your own alley map? Click here to download the data.

Steven Jackson is an independent producer living in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter @_sbjackson