Did you ever wonder why piles of garbage bags are a staple on New York City sidewalks? Neither did I, throughout my 2008 stint in the UWS, until a stranger in Chicago pointed to a striking fact: there are no alleys in Manhattan.*
Given the important functions alleys serve, this is a glaring omission by the planners of the city’s famous, massive grid. It probably wouldn’t keep me from choosing to live there again, but I believe the deficiency accounts for much of New York’s perceived harshness and uncleanliness.
What is Manhattan really lacking? Duany, Plater-Zyberk, and Speck, in their 2000 book Suburban Nation, explain the purpose of alleys:
The alley is often criticized for its lack of neatness, but that is its essence: it’s where all the messy stuff goes. From garage doors to trash containers, transformers, electrical meters, and telephone equipment, the alley takes them out of public view…
New York still has the messy stuff, and the result in parts of Manhattan: every other street tends to act like an alley.
For instance, 34th Street – home to the Empire State Building – is a main thoroughfare filled with retail and throngs of tourists. 33rd and 35th streets, on the other hand, are lined with loading docks, dumpsters, garages, and rear entry to 34th Street properties.
Elsewhere in Manhattan (notably the LES) facades of most older buildings are covered with unsightly fire escape stairways.
There are so few (if any) alleys in New York that even Jane Jacobs, in her 1961 landmark book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, doesn’t mention alleys – except in Philadelphia to contrast Manhattan’s too-long blocks:
…in the Rittenhouse Square district of Philadelphia…what were once back alleys down the centers of blocks have become streets with buildings fronting on them, and users using them like streets. … The standard Philadelphia block is 400 feet square (halved by the alleys-become-streets where the city is most successful).
Interestingly, Jacobs doesn’t point out the charming fact that alleys in Philadelphia have sidewalks (or that I happen to live on Panama alley-become-street).
And so, why doesn’t Manhattan have alleys? How could the planners of New York’s main grid omit an essential component of the basic city block, then repeat it thousands of times?
For now the answer to this quandary is beyond my research capacity.** If you have any insight, do share.
*This is true insofar as that which appears consistently in every other American city I visited appears hardly at all in Manhattan.
*Despite my limiting discussion to Manhattan, I can’t recall seeing alleys in any of the five boroughs I visited.