Much of Detroit has alleys. Most of them are in a state of total disrepair. With the City attracting more residents and investment, it’s going to become necessary for the City government to come up with a coherent and comprehensive strategy for alleys.
Alleys were originally laid out as part of the fabric of the City for a few reasons. The first was to provide access to detached garages in the form of a secondary right of way. Not only do/did they provide resident access, but garbage was picked up in them as well through the early 1990s, when the City switched over to curbside. The second reason was to provide space in which to run through various utility assets, such as sewer lines, water lines, gas lines, and above ground utilities, such as power, telephone and now internet and cable.
The commercial alley running south of Mack, between Baldwin and Seyburn. Not pretty, but it gets the job done.
As of now, the City of Detroit does not have a strategy for how they plan to address the network of alleys that they have largely abandoned, from utilities maintenance to surfacing issues. There appears to be vague glimmers of recognition in some development circles that we’re going to have to come up with a solution as to how to ‘fix’ them, what exactly that ‘fix’ entails and how we can go about organizing and financing that. And I will specifically give props to Chelsea Neblett in the Department of Neighborhoods for beginning to lay the groundwork on this very important topic. Not only is she a hard worker, but she’s an absolute sweetheart, and she’ll get her hands dirty clearing out alleys with you, as demonstrated by her coordination of an alley cleanup this past Saturday.
With more residents coming back into neighborhoods outside of the downtown core, theres a few phenomena that will actually make alleys important again:
- We’ve gotten used to abundant and free street parking in residential neighborhoods. With new residents, increased investment and just generally more people and traffic, there will be a need for homeowners to rebuild their garages in which to park their cars. While families may be willing to make that investment, without a clear right of way with which to access that garage, they would not actually go so far as to rebuild garages that have since fallen either into disrepair or been demolished entirely. This is an issue of access.
- The physical conditions in most of the alleys are dilapidated. From plant overgrowth to illegal dumping, from broken pavement to other issues, they’re both not passable, unsightly and a blight. This is an issue of appearance.
- The overall state of the infrastructure is deplorable. From the state of the surface pavement to utility lines being overgrown with tree branches to the myriad of issues with Detroit Water and Sewerage Department sinkholes and storm drains not being repaired, despite resident complaints, in some cases, for years, these alleys are crying out for massive investments. This is an issue of accountability.
The residential alley going south, between Baldwin and Seyburn, south of Mack. Neither pretty nor functional.
Thus far, in Detroit, work on alleys has been largely framed in terms of commercial alleys either downtown or in midtown. The crux of this series will be on the alleys that everyday people, Detroiters, use and rely on in the neighborhoods outside of downtown and midtown. In the next two posts, I’m going to write about what I think we can do about them, and how we can begin making that happen. This project will take years, but it is doable, and it should be residentially driven and focussed.