In my meanderings/experimental trespasses, I’m drawn to alleys. Primarily because they increase my ability to not repeat a route, which is not allowed. But also because they’re such a trip. They meander delightfully, zigzagging in strange directions between and around houses, so it’s often unclear when you enter one where you will come out.
Plus, it’s like looking behind the curtain at the character of the houses and the people who’ve lived in them. Like a lot of places, DC’s homes are often clustered in identical rows developed together. (Most places in DC, they are rowhouses, which you might call “townhouses” or “terraced houses” depending on where you are.) You can tell roughly when a line of houses was built based on the size and style: low, two-story clapboard ones with no basement are from around the Civil War period. Larger brick two-story houses with basements (or “garden levels,” if you’re trying to make yours sound nicer than it is to rent it out) are later. In wealthier areas, you find three-story Victorians with all sorts of turrets and crenellations. In other places, there are gluts of later-built perfunctory gray blobby guys.
This is all to say: each row of them tends to look the same from the front. There will be variation in color, if someone has bothered to paint it, and sometimes wild variation in siding material, depending on when the last major reno happened. But the bones all look the same. It’s like a row of coloring books filled in by different children with decent motor skills: the same structure, but different choices of decor, and varying tidiness.
That’s from the street.
From the alleys, it’s a whole different matter. There are no zoning protections back there. The backs of the houses are utter chaos. It’s hard to know even what the original developer’s plan was for the back, because every house has had so much done to alter it. Many houses used to have sleeping porches in the unthinkable days before air conditioning made these soupy summers bearable. In the years After Air Conditioning, many homeowners* changed the sleeping porches into something else, but everyone had a slightly different plan with it. Now there are open-air balconies, enclosed game rooms, extra apartments popping up over the top of the original house, spiral staircases meandering down to ground level, barbecue patios and planter beds, ersatz garages and exercise equipment. Porches spring up in all shapes and materials. There are big windows facing in on dining rooms. The modernity of the chandeliers, the finish on the table, piled high with homework or clean as a whistle waiting for the next dinner party, all tell a story.
Perhaps wandering in the alley is almost a bit indecent, like spying. The front of the house is for guests, for deliveries, for appearance on the nightly news in case something of interest happens on the street. The back of the house is more just for the neighbors. Perhaps they didn’t anticipate a weirdo at the edge of her rope on a desperate walk taking solace from the Weird Times seeing the personality of each little house bumped up against its friends.
But I suppose a lot of things are weird right now, and I’m just one among all of them. And my hope for all of you, gentle readers, is that you can let your freak flag fly in the alley of your life, whatever that is, no matter how tidy and regular you keep your street side.
*One of the very few English words containing a “meow!”
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