Alley Talk by William Dolan

William Dolan

This is a series of essays that are inspired by and inspire my drawings of Chicago alleys. It is meant to compliment and add context for the work. We are defined by where we are, where we come from or where we want to go. I come from the alleys of Chicago.

Chicago is famous for its large grid of streets. It’s a sort of framework on which the city is built. Based on the United States Public Land Survey, there are eight blocks to a mile with a major thoroughfare every four. These blocks are either laid out in full (long blocks) or halved (short blocks).

However, there is another network of roadways that is almost as large and somewhat more interesting. A secondary lattice of alleys, offset from the streets is where the burg takes care of its dirty business. It’s a place where garbage is collected, parking is accessed and power is delivered. It is also a place where many acts that aren’t meant for public view are carried out.

Alley with Metropolitan L

For children growing up in Chicago, the alley is a playground. There are games that are designed for it. Lineball, a linear version of softball uses the cracks, garage edges and phone poles to mark off areas that determine whether a ball’s bounce is a single, double, triple or home run. Hitting the ball in a yard is an automatic out. Touch football with just a few guys is just made for the narrow confines of the alley. There are also appliance boxes to play in and garage roofs to climb.

Alley with Fifth Childhood Home

Alley with Fifth Childhood Home | ink on Arches paper

The sign on the front door says “DELIVER ALL GOODS IN REAR.” That means groceries, coal furniture and other large items go down the alley. There was a time when the knife sharpener and the fruit & vegetable salesmen would announce their presence in song. Ice and milk were also delivered via the alley. Carriers pushed wooden carts filled with the morning newspapers. Many of them had metal wheels that made a deafening racket as they rolled along, often at a jog. The alley hasn’t changed much over the years. However, one can still find the occasional concrete ash bin. Perhaps the observant could even spot a 55 gallon drum or two being reused as garbage cans.

Before plastic bins, these were ubiquitous. They once contained fluids as diverse as banana puree and machine lubricant. Gone, though, is the distinctive sound of an empty can hitting the ground after it was emptied into the back of the refuse truck. Toward the end of their existence they had aluminum lids, compliments of the mayor, that would crash around the alley with the wind.

The alley holds together the social fabric of the city. People are more likely to know their neighbors from across the alley than across the street as they are usually closer and not cut off from each other by a busy street. It’s a place to hang out.

The alleyscape exists on a more human scale. Vehicles and pedestrians share the space much like a medieval street in modern Europe.

It is this relationship of alleys with the city that has forever made an impression on me and inspired me to make these drawings – a tribute to the Chicago alley.

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