“Backstaged, the alley is the outback world of the unmentionable, if not the unwanted...”
-Grady Clay, Alleys: A Hidden Resource, 1978
ACT I: “The Theatre of City Life”
On a cool grey afternoon in April of 2018, I witnessed the aftermath of a stabbing in an alley. A tall bald policeman paced beneath my window, stretching out a bolt of shiny yellow tape. Other cops in gloves scoured the ground for clues, peering into crevices where little sprouts were flowering.
That night, my neighbours filled me in on everything I’d missed—a fight between some teens, a foot chase down the alley, the ambulance on Harbord Street that whisked the kids to safety. Then we tried our best to shrug the whole thing off: wasn’t this the sort of thing you just accept in cities, the price you pay for all the joy that urban living brings? Wasn’t this the sort of thing we all expect in alleys?
The one behind my building had never caught my interest, a no man’s land of garbage bins, utility lines and vines. But when the stabbing happened, I’d just become a father, and we had recently moved from the basement up to the second floor: a slightly bigger unit with an alley view. With a mixture of curiosity and parental concern, I began to reappraise the world outside my window: a hundred-metre back lane in the middle of downtown Toronto, bordered by modest apartments and regal dark brick homes. A world where a hidden city came alive each day.
Flocks of manic songbirds squabbled in the bushes. Hunchbacked trees dangled fragrant purple fruit, luring hungry pedestrians and voracious raccoons. And because of the alley’s seclusion within the heart of the city, it offered a space where people escaped to be their most intimate selves. Dad rock-loving yuppies jammed out in their Volvos. Homeless can collectors paused to whisper prayers. At night, I witnessed the surreptitious butt-taps of couples in love.
This was a microcosm, the city in miniature, and it defied my assumption, reinforced by the stabbing and countless Hollywood films, that alleys were hostile spaces. The setting I observed and started documenting—first in frantic iPhone notes, then a formal diary—was something more inviting, and so much more complex: a vibrant public commons, a backstage in what urbanists call the “theatre of city life.” It had moments of quiet drama and goofy comedic scenes. It had celebrations, demonstrations and a public health disaster—all the budding subplots of a new urban story, unfolding in other cities, and in other alleys, all across the Earth.
Maybe that’s a lot to read into an alley. Maybe I was transferring my fears and my obsessions. But that, I’ve discovered, is what we do with alleys, what we’ve always done, chasing dreams and nightmares in the world behind our homes.
ACT II: “Question Everything”
My alley sits on the western edge of Toronto’s Koreatown, a block away from a sunken park where a river used to run. Walking past the flotsam and the jetsam on the ground—the spent fireworks, the Powerball receipts, the Day-Glo yellow straws for slurping bubble tea—I often feel the tug of deep historical currents. I picture the buried creeks that run beneath my feet, the first natural alleys of the region’s Indigenous Nations. I picture the narrow walkways of history’s earliest cities, rising up from the banks of another river region, some six thousand years ago.
Ever since ancient Uruk, the world’s first major city, founded around 4000 BC in what is now Iraq, alleys have served as a borderland between private and public life. Uruk’s covered lanes, no more than eight feet wide, offered respite from the sun when residents walked to the temple, as well as a space to escape from tiny windowless homes. A place to meet and make mischief, tucked away from the plazas where power and privilege reigned, these were sites where urban ideals collided with human desire.
That would never change. Even as the back alley shifted form and function, inspiring local variants in every urban culture—the “castra” alleyways in Roman fortress towns, the hutongs of Beijing, the terraced lanes of Istanbul with howling packs of dogs—it stayed the city’s unofficial social laboratory. The lower and middle classes of early modern Seoul defied a rigid caste system in narrow Pimagol: “Avoid-Horse-Streets” where nobles couldn’t ride. The alley coffeehouses of 17th century London fueled a newly democratic culture of ideas—a space, as poet and satirist Samuel Butler observed, where “gentleman, mechanic, lord and scoundrel mix, and are all of a piece.”
With the rise of industrial cities in the mid-1800s, alleys began to assume their modern, mythic proportions: a synonym for squalor in working-class factory districts; an adjective affixed to mean and desperate acts (“back-alley politics,” “back-alley abortion”); and an impediment in the minds of urban planners, obstructing the execution of a new civic agenda: the realignment of city life around the automobile.
From the 1930s onwards, alleys were razed by the thousands in Western industrial cities, clearing a path for expressways and other commuter routes. As upwardly mobile citizens fled to the leafy suburbs, the alleys that remained became a potent cultural shorthand, immortalized in cop shows and “social problem” films, pathologized in studies on overcrowded cities, as demonized as the people of colour who often lived around them: the archetypal hellscape of the new “inner city.”
Yet even as the stigma attached to these spaces spread, there were lonely renegades fighting to preserve them. In 1978, a Louisville journalist and urban planner named Grady Clay published Alleys: A Hidden Resource, the first book to celebrate their history and potential. The slim, 60-page volume won a cult following in the 1980s and ’90s, prized by discerning architects and students of urban design, who were desperate for alternatives to the tyranny of the suburbs. At a time when even the most progressive urbanists thought and talked about alleys in strictly functional terms—a place to put ugly stuff—Clay predicted their story’s most unexpected twist: their growing usefulness as a communal space in the swelling, socially fragmented cities that we live in today.
He predicted scenes like the ones I saw in May of 2020, when my alley served as a rest stop on Black Lives Matter marches; a site for water breaks, adjustments of PPE and discreet, restorative rips from comically large bongs. Amid the grieving tributes to the memory of George Floyd, the countercultural history of alleys sprung to life, spelled out on a poster carried by one of the marchers. The bright red placard spoke for all the dissidents who’ve huddled in these spaces—and the need to reassess the stories told about them: “QUESTION EVERYTHING.”
ACT III: “Come On and Celebrate”
If not for the efforts of earlier urban dissenters, those marchers might never have found a place to cool their heels—or a neighbourhood where they could spread their message.
Like countless other alleys in North American cities, mine was slated for demolition during the 1960s, an obstacle in the path of an urban highway project. But thanks to years of lobbying by local residents and civic activists, politicians cancelled the Clinton-Christie Expressway and a wider network of freeways planned around it. Toronto was spared the fate of countless American cities, blighted and divided by “urban renewal” plans, and kept the rich inheritance I stare at every day: vibrant residential streets right in the downtown core, fronting a network of more than 2,400 alleys.
For almost fifty years, the city squandered this gift, abandoning alleys to trash cans and overfed raccoons, until a population boom in the mid-2000s prompted an urgent need for green community spaces. Enter The Laneway Project, founded in 2014 by a young urban designer named Michelle Senayah. Over the last decade, this independent non-profit has led the revitalization of thirty Toronto alleys, transforming them into greenways and neighbourhood meeting places.
More than just a rebrand of long-neglected alleys, dressing them up with planters and the elegant moniker laneway—an inherited Britishism widely used in Toronto—the Project’s featured lanes and public outreach efforts inspire neighbourhoods to activate their own. Residents now compete to name unregistered alleys, paying homage to figures enshrined in local lore—a Mohawk doctor, a Chinese laundry owner, a Yugoslavian neighbour renowned for his homemade wine. And when the sun comes out on weekend afternoons, children’s birthday parties spill onto the pavement, laneway walking tours explore their natural history, and local fashionistas vamp against the walls, framed by alley murals that rank among Toronto’s most Instagrammable sites.
It’s an alley renaissance in spray can Technicolor, and it reflects a global trend since the early 21st century, when the world’s population became majority urban. With exponential growth stressing infrastructure, and the environmental costs of sprawl increasingly clear, cities from Melbourne to Athens, Detroit to Bogota, are turning back to their alleys, finding new ways to imagine and experience public space. Once portrayed as a symbol of social and moral decay, alleys now inspire fawning media coverage, blogs and dissertations, and dedicated units in city planning bureaus. They represent a strain of utopian urbanism, rooted in the work of the late Jane Jacobs and other progressive critics of 20th Century planning: a growing belief that cities—dense, diverse cities—are good for the mind and body, and good for the planet, too.
As a life-long urbanite, I’m inclined to agree. Almost four years on, the entries in my alley diaries read like little mash notes, lovestruck tributes to the pageant outside my window: to City workmen breakdancing on their smoke breaks; to youthful skateboard posses rolling through at twilight; to the full-throated chorists of the Church of the Pentecost, a West African ministry in a building next to the alley, tetris-ing their minivans on weekend afternoons.
One April Saturday evening, the days finally lengthening after a brutal winter, I watched a group of parishioners suddenly break into song, serenading the alley while waiting for their husbands. An adorable little girl, wearing a frilly dress, spun around in circles as the women reached the chorus, stretching out her arms towards the dimming sky.
“Come on and celebrate,” they sang. “Come on and celebrate...”
For a brief, blissful moment, the city was transformed—not just a sociable place but a virtuous one. A place that looked and felt a little too good for this world. A place that looked and felt a little too good to be true.
ACT IV: “The Hourglass”
In his book Metropolis, a riveting history of cities released in 2020, historian Ben Wilson describes the urban hubs of the global knowledge economy through what he calls an hourglass: “lots of rich people at the top, not many in the middle, and a caste of low-wage immigrants making up the base.” It’s an image I often return to as my city euphoria plummets, crashing into reality between the alley’s walls.
For years, it was the tourists rolling their bags up the alley, heading towards my building and our underground Airbnbs, the frequent, illegal bookings that helped my neighbours and I pay our exorbitant rent. Recently, it’s the realtor signs shimmering on garages, advertising homes that sell for over two million dollars. Often, there’s a man or woman lingering at the gate, plucking cans and bottles from blue recycling bins.
The “binners,” as they call themselves in some Canadian cities, span ages, genders and cultures, as well as levels of need: full- and part-time collectors; the homeless and the housed; brittle, stooped retirees—mostly Chinese and Italian, in my neighbourhood—supplementing fixed incomes any way they can. Jutta Gutberlet, a professor of geography at the University of Victoria, studies the lives of binners in cities around the globe and estimates that there are “at least 11 million worldwide.” A group “treated like waste because they work with waste,” and a hidden resource, reducing our carbon footprint, the binners are, in so many ways, the alley in human form—a fixture, and a face, of its long and winding history.
But do they have a place in the alleys we’re seeing today, which are gentrifying on a scale never seen before? In many Western cities, there’s no more striking example of the transformation—and the corporatization—of the post-industrial landscape than the “showplace” alleys popping up downtown: places like Jade Alley, in Miami’s Design District, a warren of cocktail bars and sleek designer stores; and Washington, DC’s The Wharf, a $2 billion condo and restaurant complex, full of alleys meant to evoke the District’s historic laneways. Meanwhile, in cities like Lagos, Mumbai and Beijing, ringed by alley-riddled informal settlements, ’60s-style “renewal” unfolds on a ruinous scale. Residents are evicted. Protesters are beaten. Alleys disappear.
Toronto’s laneway upgrades are certainly more humane; in many ways, they’re a model of grassroots urbanism, initiated by residents rather than City Hall. But as the city morphs into a prototypical “hourglass,” ranking among the world’s most expensive places to live, laneway activations tend to concentrate in wealthy neighbourhoods with powerful resident groups and business associations—not the working class districts in greatest need of investment. Well-intentioned zoning laws permitting “laneway houses”—secondary buildings, housing rental units, on alley-facing lots—also serve the interests of affluent property owners, handing them an exclusive, lucrative income source without making much of a dent in the city’s housing shortage. As one of Toronto’s leading urban equity consultants recently put it to me, requesting anonymity for fear they might “ruffle some feathers”: “there’s a bit of a neoliberal vibe with a socialist veneer.”
Although my alley exists on the edge of the laneway boom—unnamed, unkempt, unmapped on Google Street View—it’s rife with examples of the same social fissures and the power dynamics that govern urban space: the female friends and neighbours who don’t feel safe at night, menaced by ex-boyfriends and masturbating men; the young Black man cuffed on the ground at gunpoint, one August afternoon, at the alley’s northwest entrance. The arresting officer, noting my concern, apologized to me, the white guy across the street.
And then there is the binner I’ve taken to calling Luigi, in honour of his resemblance to my late Uncle Louie, a ruddy-faced Sicilian who drove a New York cab. This leather-skinned paisan is ubiquitous in the alley, wobbling up and down on his battered yellow bike, but after years of failed attempts to greet him from my window—years of lame excuses not to run downstairs and meet him—I still don’t know his name. We’re twenty feet away yet live a world apart.
The longer I’ve observed Luigi in the alley—the pop of his red “CANADA” shirt in sheets of summer rain; the distinctive, endearing bend in his ailing, lower right leg—the more his weekly cameos have summoned nagging doubts, and the central question of our alley’s latest act: If this was what the city looked like during times of plenty, what would be in store when a real crisis hit?
ACT V: “Speed Control Zone”
Right from the very beginning, when the first blue surgical masks started to clog the gutters, the vast extremes of alley life were stunning to behold. Here were the local binners, more numerous than ever, hiking black garbage bags over weary shoulders; there, my upstairs neighbours, draped in bags of food, heading in to quarantine to gorge on sourdough. When Luigi showed up one day, in latex gloves and a mask, gingerly lifting the bins with the end of a pointed stick, the properties behind him were dense with winter shadows—the elegant houses dark, the parking spaces empty, the residents now dispersed to second homes in the country. The COVID-19 pandemic had breached the alley’s walls.
This wholescale disruption of daily life and routine glued me to my window. I kept my fear at bay by noting signs of life: the soaring, honking skeins of Canada geese in April; the fat purple mulberries that ripen every June; the high pitched cackle of my diabolical toddler, hunting for worms in the alley after her daycare closed.
The alley became a refuge, a place to slow my roll: a “speed control zone,” like it’s described on a sign. By autumn, when the yellow leaves from the ash trees turned to mulch, I was feeling something that no one ascribes to alleys; something I felt nowhere else in our embattled city, among the shuttered storefronts and empty subway cars: I felt a sense of awe.
And somehow, it persisted, this feeling of connection, this quiet sense of reverence for the world in all its flaws. Somehow, it endured another bleak pandemic winter, and all the microcosmic dramas of another year. On January 4th, 2021, I watched a man in a neon vest scale my favourite ash tree, sawing it down to a stump while I was stuck on Zoom. Four months later, a laneway house emerged, the first we’d seen in the alley, rising up through the gap the tree left on the horizon. Right about the time it hit the rental market—a two-story mammoth in psychedelic colours, listed for the tidy sum of $5500 a month—Luigi disappeared. The last time I saw him was a drizzly day in June, riding away in the fog.
Faced with all these changes—these losses and erasures—I questioned why my sense of wonder hadn’t vanished, too. I knew that this was partly a reflection of my privilege—of having distance from the harsh conditions all around me. But was there something else, intrinsic to an alley, that brought this feeling out? Did these hidden spaces have a “spiritual” dimension, as Michael David Martin, a landscape architect at Iowa State University, put it to me once, describing certain alleys as an urban “sanctuary”? Even before the pandemic, mine had fit the bill, a place to still my mind and activate my senses. Now, in the midst of this unrelenting shitstorm, the alley tethered me to people, and cycles in nature, I used to overlook; my small, brief life to a bigger network of life.
That, at least, was how it felt one afternoon last summer, stumbling down the asphalt, reeling from the news of the death of Michelle Senayah, the passionate young founder of Toronto’s Laneway Project. I’d interviewed Senayah only weeks before, a brief but memorable meeting, and now she was suddenly gone, at the age of 36. The same age as I was, that humid afternoon.
Everything around me bristled with new meaning: the adolescent love notes scattered on the walls; the sun-bleached vines shaking in the breeze; the shadows of the power lines merging on the blacktop: fishing poles at noon, pyramids by dusk. All the mundane wonders that fill our senses daily, until the day they don’t.
Halfway down the alley, near the gnarled remnants of that once-majestic ash, my attention rested on a faded purple stencil, a sight I’d passed a thousand times but never studied closely. In thick block letters, stamped on a garage beneath an insult to the cops, some fellow alley pilgrim had left a five-word message that I would once have resisted, and probably even mocked, but that now, after all these years of loss and transformation—all these quiet afternoons, living on the alley— read like a statement of fact: “THIS IS A SACRED MOMENT.”
With special thanks to Fallon Butler, Zahra Ebrahim, Jutta Gutberlet, Bronwen Heilig, Christopher Hume, Pico Iyer, Michael David Martin, Sean Miles and the late Michelle Senayah.