With our sidewalks under constant attack, it is time for this column to retreat to the back alleys this week and look at their potential to improve the city's scarred landscape and engender some needed neighborhood pride.
Yes, alleys, those often refuse-strewn, pot-holed, badly lit, dog- and oil-stained linear garbage dumps that were planned generations ago to channel services away from the front of homes to their rear so that streets can maintain their genteel residential ambiance. So much for planning.
"With some improvements, they could be delightful mews," suggested Terry Mitchell, a native of England, as he and his wife, Kathy, ambled along an alley in Santa Monica recently, their boxer, Walter, in tow.
Because Walter needs two long walks a day, Terry, a graphic artist, and Kathy, a children's book illustrator, have taken to touring the alleys in the Wilshire district of Santa Monica. It is there I often meet them while carrying out the garbage can or being taken for a walk by Max, a bull terrier.
"Alleys are much more interesting, more alive, than the streets, and with some flower boxes, maintenance and restricted traffic, can become a very attractive, sociable area, just like the mews I experienced when I lived in the Pimlico district in London," added Terry.
Indeed, in the many neighborhoods of two- and three-story apartment complexes scattered across the Los Angeles region, back alleys have replaced front sidewalks as the place where neighbors meet and exchange pleasantries.
Whether it is just carrying out the garbage, walking the dog, jogging, parking or washing the car, doing some work in the garage, or simply taking a short cut to and from the corner market, many alleys have become a social scene.
And they are becoming busier, too, as more and more people use them instead of sidewalks and streets. Reasons include the abysmally poor condition of many sidewalks, which, over the years, have been abused by mindless street widenings and by cities allowing parking on what should have been landscaped front lawns. And watch out for those curb cuts.
If the rears of cars jammed under dingbat apartment houses are not blocking the sidewalks, then it's their slippery oil stains that have to be avoided. The apartment buildings look as if they are mooning the streets, making walking along sidewalks depressing as well as dangerous.
Used as Short Cuts
Alleys also can be dangerous and depressing for pedestrians. Some, connecting to major streets, are increasingly being used by drivers as short cuts, especially during rush hours. Few police patrol cars are ever seen in alleys, certainly not to give out tickets to speeders and to illegally parked cars.
And while most municipalities regularly sweep the streets, alleys have to wait for the Santa Ana winds or the beneficence of apartment owners to be cleaned. And if it wasn't for scavengers cruising for paper and other trash that might have some value, and which the sanitation workers in their rush leave behind, alleys could easily become garbage dumps. Some already are.
But with just a little imagination, a few improvements and some nurturing, alleys instead could become a very attractive and pleasant "people place."
In San Francisco, for example, a group known as the Chinatown Neighborhood Improvement Resource Center, formed something called the Alleyway Assn. to improve 41 alleyways. Areas along the alleys were created for sitting and art displays, plantings were provided and maintenance was improved, including restricting through-traffic.
Caution for Drivers
As for the problem of blocking of one end of the alleys to stop illegal and annoying through-traffic, but not garbage pickup and truck deliveries, a hydraulic bollard that can be raised and lowered is being used in Europe.
Chains, speed bumps, special paving and gates also have been used to impress upon drivers that in select alleys they have the responsibility to enter and leave with caution, and it is the pedestrian that has the right of way.
In Los Angeles, a start would be to encourage more apartment dwellers facing the alley to put out window planters, insisting sanitation workers be more careful when picking up the garbage, asking dog lovers to clean up after their pets and having the various municipalities sweep the alleys on a regular basis.
Lending alleys charm is just the down-to-earth, here-and-now type of project that could challenge the imagination of some select students in one of the many fine architectural and planning schools in the Los Angeles area. Anything they might do certainly would be more interesting than some abstract design solution to some abstract problem on some Italian hillside 7,000 miles away, a perennial favorite among professors.