Third Street Alley

This particular alley is just off the Charlottesville Down Town Mall where, as those of you who come to this site regularly know, is a favorite place for street photography.

Alleys have always fascinated me. They suggest hidden and sort of semi-secret areas not intended for the mainstream public–they’re kind of like the much more interesting blue-collar brother of the clean and proper main street facade.  I remember a TV show when I was a kid growing up in 1950s upstate New York called, “Boston Blackie.” In the title sequence detective Boston Blackie would appear out of a dark alley then, like a phantom, disappear back into it.

I always thought that was so cool.

Actor Kent Taylor starred as the hard-boiled, wise-cracking detective (who was a reformed jewel thief) in the “The Adventures of Boston Blackie” TV series which began in 1951 (when I was 6.) According to a Wikipedia article it ran for 58 episodes then was re-run for years in various venues. The TV show was set in Los Angeles—not Boston. I guess Blackie just came from Boston—moving to the west coast to enjoy the much more pleasant climate.

As a kid going to and from school on 6th street in Rome, NY, I remember walking past alleys. In warm weather I see them in my memory as nasty places full of trash, junk, broken glass, mice and rats. And where you have mice and rats you have snakes. In the winter they quickly filled with falling and drifting snow so they were a lot more benign to contemplate.

Allentown, Pennsylvania—the old historic part of town around the Central Square Park—has great alleys. Whenever my wife Joanie and I are in North Eastern Pennsylvania visiting her daughter and grand kids (who live near Wind Gap,) I go over to Allentown to do my street shooting.

Several years back a company hired by the city (whose name I can’t remember—old people have bad memories for stuff like that) set up a program in the several blocks around Central Square Park  that is fantastic.

I think they have about a dozen employees who patrol the area night and day, cleaning up trash—even power-washing the sidewalks—seeing that merchants keep junk off the street and making sure there is lighting in dark areas. Some years back—as is so often the case in old parts of cities—drug trafficking, prostitution, robberies, break-ins, street gangs and violence were a serious problem.

Crime—like cockroaches—loves darkness and filth. Clean up the garbage and turn on the lights and the pushers, junkies, prostitutes, criminals and gang-bangers go somewhere else. The people patrolling the streets wear special wind-breakers or vests to identify themselves and carry radios. They’re in touch with their supervisors and the police constantly. If they see a mess they clean it up. If a light behind a store is out they report it and it gets fixed in 24 hours or less.

The program has worked beautifully. That part of Allentown has magnificent old houses and buildings dating back to the 19th century, the sidewalks are huge—20 feet wide very often. Beautiful Oaks and Elms tower over the pavement providing shade and making for a delightful, park-like atmosphere so it’s a wonderful place to stroll—especially in the evening now that the area is safe and clean.

It has been a boon to merchants—especially restaurant and theater owners. In the early evenings in warm weather, the sidewalks are crowded with pedestrian traffic. Sidewalk cafes do a brisk business—old Allentown becomes a wonderful human fair with older couples ambling along, young couples holding hands across a café table and young parents with kids and strollers thronging the sidewalks—everyone patronizing the many businesses. Built a hundred years ago, the layout of the old part of town was intended for walking but the streets themselves are wide—decent traffic flow—and street-parking is plentiful. There are also plenty of parking lots.

And, as those of you who are long-time fans may remember, there’s a super used book store there called “The Quadrant.” They have (literally) tons of used books on any subject you can imagine and a great informal eatery—short orders, sandwiches, breakfast, drinks, teas, coffees. Whenever I’m in the area I have to hang out there—have a snack, wander around shooting, come back, have a drink, roam up and down the aisles and stacks of books. There are a number of really cool, curious little back rooms on all three floors—there’s an art gallery on the second floor. I chat with patrons—that usually includes one or two of the street patrol on break or in conference with their supervisors or going through shift change.

Alleys are a great urban tradition—they seem to provide a functional and informal alternative to main thoroughfares. We just need to keep the trash cleaned up and the lights on.

As you travel from where ever you are now to where ever you need to be in life you might want to give thought to taking a break from the fast lane and hang out in some clean, well-lit alleys from time to time.  Who knows, you might run into Boston Blackie.

And that would be so cool.

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