Written for the Journal of the NY Folklore Society
New York City has maintained an interesting and playful association with its alleyways. Few places have produced more joyful sounds than Manhattan's "Tin Pan Alley," colorfully named to describe the raucous musical bustle of songwriters hard at work. The same general area was recently re-dubbed "Silicon Alley" to help promote the image of the City as an emerging Internet center. Neither strip was a true alley of course, but the use of the allegorical alleyway immediately associated these areas and the activities of their inhabitants with New York's tightly packed, intense cosmopolitan character.
Sure we have rows of brownstones and townhouses with nary an alley in sight and housing projects that seemed to have no need for major streets, let alone backend corridors. And unlike our brethren in Boston and Philadelphia, New Yorkers can't boast of inventing games like halfball and wireball specifically for play in an alley's confined space. Still, the association of the alleyway with the City remains strong and the playful use of this urban space is part of our folklore.
Part of the LandscapeThe idea of letting one's kids play in a darkened alley, hidden from adult view, is probably not the most comforting thought for the vast majority of today's parents. Responding to safety concerns and the desire to promote the development of our children's skills, we've taken our kids from the streets and placed them in gyms, classrooms, and other managed settings. Perhaps it's all for the better, but during most of the 20th century, urban children spent their daylight after school hours playing outdoors with their friends throughout their neighborhood in unsupervised activities. From a child's view, the alley was just another part of the playground.
Streets and sidewalks, the urban equivalent of open spaces, were adaptable to the full range of ball games and the widest variety of play. Alleys, along with other smaller, less accessible environments such as roofs and basements, provided their own special excitement and fun.
Hide and SeekLong dark narrow and often littered with assorted types of refuse bins and buckets, alleys were ideally suited for games of search and chase like hide-and-seek, tag and ringoleavio. If you quietly kneeled in towards a side doorway, a couple of garbage cans might have provided you with just enough cover to avoid being captured by opposing players on the hunt. A friend recalled the excitement of ducking into particularly narrow passageway towards the rear of a building, scaling the walls, and holding himself up by widening his stance and pressing his feet against the two sides. As his pursuers rounded the dark corner, none thought to look up. I imagine gleeful visions of Spiderman or another superhero passing through his head while unsuspecting friends raced beneath his suspended frame.
Having a good place to hide could be useful beyond typical activities of play. You might duck down the alley to surprise friends or to avoid confronting a bully who hadn't yet spotted you on the street. Then again, you couldn't beat a good alley for hiding stuff that you were scared to bring in the house. "Dirty magazines" shared among friends could be stuffed in some old newspapers and stored in a box at the end of a more deserted strip. While they still might eventually get discovered by a building's "super" (the superintendent or janitor), that was way better than having the stuff discovered by mom.
Short CutsOf course the super might chase you away from the alley, no matter what you doing. Protecting a window from being broken by a ball was a lot more important than encouraging our youthful sense of fun and adventure. "You kids better get out from back there and go play in the street before I catch you," would effectively send us scurrying towards the unobstructed daylight and the protection of the public space.
The range of alleyway activities was also dependent upon the corridor's accessibility. In some neighborhoods, alleys were enclosed by the fences and gates that delineated property lines. In others they formed a relatively unobstructed set of paths along the inside of a block, enabling short cuts by foot (or in some cases by bike) throughout the neighborhood. You could have a pretty good race, with the big kids riding their bikes around the block, the littler ones running through it.
There were practical household functions that made use of these narrow corridors, the most common being moms' hanging out the wet clothes to dry. I've heard of kids stringing lines between adjoining buildings to send things back and forth, but my friend whose family lived up in Washington Heights had us all beat. His apartment was in a building on 141st street between Broadway and Riverside Drive. His cousins lived on the same block facing 140th. One day his Dad went out and strung a telephone wire to create a working closed phone line between the two apartments. Whenever one of the aunts wanted to speak to her sister, she'd give a single ring through Ma Bell, then the other would pick up on their private line.
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