Friday, December 1, 2017

The History of Chicago's Alleys.

Chicago is the alley capital of the country, with more than 1,900 miles of them within its borders.
Alleys have been part of Chicago's physical fabric since the beginning. Eighteen feet in width, they graced all 58 blocks of the Illinois & Michigan Canal commissioners' original town plat in 1830, providing rear service access to the property facing the 80-foot-wide main streets.
Originally, Chicago alleys were unpaved, and most had no drainage or connection to the sewer system, leaving rainwater to simply drain through the gravel, causing muddy ruts to remain dirty even after drying out.

In the mid-19th century, Chicago sought an economical solution to the muddy alleyways that plagued the city. Cinder paving emerged as a cost-effective alternative to other materials like brick, Belgian woodblocks, or asphalt, providing access to the rear of buildings while minimizing the impact on side street traffic and heavy traffic on main thoroughfares.

Despite their initial widespread adoption, cinder-paved alleys presented several drawbacks over time. The porous nature of cinders made them susceptible to erosion and dust generation, particularly during arid periods. Many children playing in these alleys ended up in hospital emergency rooms after scraping their knees and elbows on the rough surface. Today, no cinder alleys can be found in Chicago.

As Chicago's economy flourished and the demand for superior infrastructure intensified, the prevalence of cinder-paved alleys waned. Asphalt and concrete gained favor for alley paving due to their resilience, aesthetic appeal, and ease of maintenance.

By the mid-20th century, cinder-paved alleys had become a rarity in Chicago, gradually replaced by more durable and aesthetically pleasing alternatives.

Some heavily used alleys were paved with Belgian woodblocks. Before the Belgian blocks became common, many different pavement methods had wildly varying advantages and disadvantages. Because it was so cheap, woodblock was one of the favored early methods.

Chicago street paver bricks were also used, and then alleys were paved over with concrete or asphalt.
But private platting soon produced a few blocks without alleys, mostly in the Near North Side's early mansion district or in the haphazardly laid-out industrial workingmen's neighborhoods on the Near South Side. 

However, alleys became the overwhelming norm in city planning as the National Land Survey imposed its grid framework upon Chicago's expanding street and block patterns. Together, they enabled the city to evolve a “system” of mass-produced services and mass-produced access, one of the civic accomplishments of the century.

By 1900, over 98% of the city's residential blocks had alleys; a century later, the proportion was still well over 90%.
A typical “Manure Vault” in a Chicago alley in 1918.
Alleys were used by a variety of horse-cart peddlers selling everything from fresh fruit to knife sharpening. With so many peddlers throughout the city, horse manure was a huge problem. My article, "How the City Dealt with all the horse manure," explains how manure vaults were a big part of Chicago's alleys before the turn of the 20th century.

Early suburban developments showed a rising ambivalence toward alleys (Olmsted & Vaux's 1869 Riverside plat contains 31 blocks with alleys and 50 without them). Around World War I, 'modern' planning theory declared alleys wasteful and undesirable, and the last outer fringes of the city of Chicago, along with the vast majority of the suburban territory, were developed thereafter without alleys.

Alleys developed social meanings early on. In middle-class areas, the street represented the respectable front, while the alley saw the servants and suppliers do the dirty work. In working-class areas, alleys provided space for small manufacturing, repair shops, rear houses, children's play space, and, eventually, garages. Much of Chicago's elevated rapid transit system came to run along alleys.
Chicago's alley life, reflecting in many neighborhoods extreme low-rise urban congestion (in contrast to that of New York's tall tenement blocks), spurred intense social criticism by Century's end for the health and behavioral 'pathologies' it supported, but improvements came slowly. In the core areas, the impact of business district expansion, expressways, public housing projects, and large-scale urban renewal after World War II obliterated thousands of alleys. In the rest of the city and in some railroad suburbs, however, alleys have survived the new millennium largely intact and contribute hugely to the pulse of Chicago's daily life.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D. 


  1. Lived in Uptown between 1955 through 1964......our "Alley" was between 4600 block of North Malden St. and Magnolia St. We played there and it cut off a 1/2 block of walking! We ran down the alley to Wilson Ave. to the stores. Malden Drugs, Hixson's Liquors, A&P, Magnolia Grocery and all the others on Wilson. When we went to the movies at the Uptown and the Riviera we would come home through the alley, too. Our parents wouldn't allow us to use the alley after dark though. I think that was because of a girl who had disappeared in the neighborhood and then they found her body in a barrel or 55 gal drum of some sort......that changed a lot of our behavior in the neighborhood!

  2. My alley ran in back of Sacramento Ave between Augusta and Thomas in Humboldt Park. When I was very young it was paved with bricks. Once a week we had a man selling fruit and the cart was pulled by a horse. You would scream out your back window and he would stop.

  3. While my (north) side of Winona had an alley, the (south) side that was next to Carmen did not. This was the block in between Broadway and Glenwood in Uptown. Can anyone explain the missing alley? Yet, in between Carmen and Winnemac had an alley.

  4. My Alley was on N. Ridgeway near Roscoe during the 50's thru 70's growing up. We played all the sports in the alley from touch football, a version of baseball, basketball and we were just a shout away from home. In the early 60's they added lights in the alleys. We had lights before the Cubs.It was a great shortcut to school and St Wenceslaus.
    Where do New Yorkers put their garbage for a whole week if they don't have a respectable alley?

  5. My alley: 36th and Seeley! I was lucky because it wrapped around our building. There was always plenty of room to play and to pull into the garage in the winter. Also plenty to shovel, too...

    Another wonderful thing about alleys is that you can put something you don't want anymore back there and 9 times out of 10 it will disappear within the hour. I really miss that. I live in Germany now where that is not allowed. In fact, we even have to drive to the recycling center. Then there is the insult of having to pay to throw it away, knowing nobody will ever get any use out of it again.

    The ability to build alleys into our city was another of the city-planning silver linings of the fire of 1871. Otherwise, we'd have our trash piling up in the streets like NYC.

    1. So true about NY, first thing i noticed and smelled!

    2. As for throwing things in the alley so they can "disappear" for someone else's use: in Colorado now we put stuff like that on the front curb and it is gone in at least 24 hours if not in one hour. One gets the satisfaction of knowing that those less fortunate (or not so less fortunate) are being helped. The stove in our house right this minute was taken from a curb and our old one was placed out to be taken! It is gas and the old one was electric and the gas is better for our purposes.

  6. If you read the first paragraph, it says: original town plat in 1830 provided rear service access to property. The Great Chicago Fire had nothing to do with the development of alleys.

  7. IMHO, one of the worst things Chicago did was pave the alleys. When they were cinder or gravel, water from rains would just perc through. Since they did not install any drainage systems in the paved alleys, the adjoining yards flood.

  8. I loved our alley! The many kids on my block always met up there....the girls would end up in someone's backyard that had a swingset,and the boys played baseball. On weekends, the dads would be out washing their cars, while a radio in the garage always had a baseball game on. I loved the fruit and vegetable trucks and my mom would always run out and buy something.

  9. The city also had horse drawn mobile incinerator wagons.The men would shovel the garbage right into the fire. I wonder how many fires were set off.

  10. On the southwest side, Western to Harlem, Archer to 95th, the alleys were "paved" in cinders from the coal burners (boilers and electric plants) up though 1955, at least. The stuff was literally lava, sharp and crunchy, but pervious. I've been surprised at the near total absence of any mention of cinder-paved alleys in Chicago, no pictures, no mention in lit searches. Then that begs the schedule for Chicago's alley paving program to concrete over them, which seemed to parallel the 'new street lights' program.

  11. Speaking for the southwest side, regularly coming down those alleys were the horse drawn wagon by the guy yelling "Rags and old iron. Rags and old iron" gone by i think 1960; and the other one which survived into the 1980s. the knife sharpening push cart, with its well spaced in time automatic tinker bell geared to his axle.


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