By Avital Aboody
Alleyways are a defining feature of older urban neighborhoods. Such extensive networks of passageways and open spaces that offer easy access to homes and businesses with minimal car interference should be celebrated and utilized. Yet rather than developing alleys for the benefit of the community, they have become the forgotten public spaces.
Years of neglect have turned alleys into prime locations for dumping, tagging, drug dealing, sexual activity, physical assault, loitering, and almost every other type of criminal activity you could imagine. The excessive trash, lack of adequate lighting, and poor maintenance contribute to an environment that is unsanitary and unsafe for residents, business owners, and employees that live and work around alleyways.
It is bad enough that alleys are public health and safety hazards, but when you take into account the fact that low-income urban neighborhoods are also severely lacking in parks and public gathering places, improving alley conditions becomes even more essential.
As part of the public right of way, alleyways have great potential to be transformed into alternative public spaces where neighbors and friends can congregate. Furthermore, increased pedestrian traffic and installation of public art in alleyways can help deter illegal activity and improve the dangerous conditions that currently characterize alleyways in under-served neighborhoods of San Diego.
I’ve been working as a community organizer in the Greater Logan Heights neighborhoods for about two years now. I’ve participated in countless community meetings in schools, libraries, churches, the police station, local businesses, and community centers. I’ve been inside nearly every business and walked, biked, or driven up and down almost every street. But most importantly I’ve observed and I’ve listened. And what I keep seeing and hearing time and again is the concern about the horrible conditions in alleyways.
BAME CDC, the non-profit community based organization that I work for, organizes quarterly neighborhood cleanups. Volunteers from the community come with gloves and trash pickers, pick-up trucks, and the spirit of community service to do their part in keeping this neighborhood clean. At our last cleanup, we collected about 20,000 pounds of trash, most of which was discarded furniture, appliances, yard waste, and other miscellaneous items found in the alleyways. We even found a boat.
We leave with a feeling of accomplishment, and then sure enough, within one week of the cleanup, those streets and alleys have a whole new stockpile of trash. I felt like I was being taunted each time I picked up trash and then more trash appeared. So I started thinking and about what else could be done to more sustainably change the way that alleys are utilized in the neighborhood. And as I began to talk about my ideas, I realized that I was not alone in my obsession with alleyways.
Last June, my friend Beryl Forman (AKA Ms. Boulevard of El Cajon Boulevard Business Improvement Association) participated in the Portland Convergence. There she witnessed the magic of community coming together over the course of one week to improve intersections across the city by painting, installing amenities, and reclaiming public spaces. A few months later, she helped bring Mark Lakeman, the founder of the Portland Convergence, to San Diego to spark creative place-making efforts here.
After the talk, all the movers and shakers who were there started sharing their project ideas and I found myself talking to Brian from the Media Arts Center about my vision for alleyway revitalization. Later that week, he sent me an email with links to resources and articles about alleyway projects in Boyle Heights, a predominantly Latino neighborhood in East Los Angeles that shares much in common with Logan Heights. Learning about the work being done in Boyle Heights was nothing short of inspiring. I devoured all this information and went to talk to Beryl about my vision.
Beryl informed me that the Media Arts Center has actually been hosting an event called “Take Back the Alley” for the past two years. Each May, Qualcomm helps bring over 70 volunteers to enhance their back lot and encourage activation of the outdoor space. Beryl also told me that James Brown, the owner of the Bread & Salt in Barrio Logan, was interested improving the alley behind his building. So we started meeting. We then reached out to the City of San Diego’s new Civic Innovation Lab to help us develop a pilot for participatory place-making in alleyways throughout San Diego. And with that, the Take Back the Alley 3.0 partnership was born!
In Logan Heights, I chose to focus on two alleys where I had already spoken to residents and business owners about their concerns about alleys. Kat Vargas, a local artist who lives off of the alley between Clay and Franklin (between 30th and 31st), was the first to champion of the cause. Together we knocked on the doors of all her neighbors, collecting stories about the alley and inviting them to participate in our community meetings.
Then I approached Javier Rodriguez, the owner of Antojitos Colombianos on Imperial Avenue, about the idea and he was all in. So we started having meetings there too. The meetings brought together property owners, business owners, employees, tenants, children, artists, city staff, clergy, non-profit staff, and police officers to talk about grassroots solutions to the chronic problems that exist in alleyways.
As we developed plans for our community-build day, property owners started coming out of the woodwork and taking responsibility for keeping their lot clean, and neighbors volunteered to pass out flyers and generate support for the cause. This conversation was long overdue, but now that it’s happening, the community is really stepping up to the challenge, excited by the possibilities of reclaiming their public spaces.
I invite you to join with these dedicated local residents, business owners, students and artists as we converge in the alleyways to take part in their transformation by painting murals, installing signage, installing lights, building planters out of recycled materials, weeding and planting, and a variety of other designs as determined by the community. The event will culminate in a series of block parties featuring music, food, and guest speakers. Help us Take Back the Alley on May 17th!
For more information and to donate to this cause: