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Alleyways could become fashionable again

You're walking down a dark alley replete with menacing shadows, yowling cats, vague, threatening shapes and overflowing garbage cans. You're expecting to be mugged at any moment. But if you subscribe to a growing school of thought, this is what crosses your mind: "Boy, what a great place!"Over the past 20 years, due to accumulating trash, general neglect or crime, many Salt Lake residents have asked the city to close their mid-block alleys and apportion the land to adjoining property owners. Last year the city closed about five of them.

At the same time, some planners and community activists think alleys are great for bringing neighborhoods together. They are trying to keep existing ones open and get more in new subdivisions.

"It depends on your neighborhood," said associate city planner Lisa Miller. "The alleys that work, we don't hear from those people. They're using them."

During the first few decades of the 20th century, Salt Lake developers routinely incorporated alleys into their plans. Residents went through alleys to get to their garages; garbage was picked up there; children goofed around there.

"As a child, that was our playground," said Salt Lake City Councilwoman Joanne Milner, who grew up on Salt Lake's west side. "It was a cool, shady place that as children we could ride our bikes in."

But the United States - and Salt Lake City - gradually changed to an automobile culture, with developers building more front-yard driveways, garages at the side of homes instead of behind them - and no alleys. Many alleys, useful for so long, were no longer needed or wanted and fell into neglect.

"(Some alleys) have become a harbor for, uh, not the most wholesome environment," Milner said.

One of Milner's constituents, Arquin Sanchez, owns a bar at 76 S. 900 West that has an alley right next to it. He has worked with the city for over a year to close the alley because it exacerbates the area's crime problems.

"That alley is just used for drug activity," he said. "I go out and clean it up and pick up baggies (used for) crack and cocaine."

Police say drug dealers use a pay phone on one end of Sanchez's alley to transact drug deals and use the alley as a quick getaway route. There was a major drug bust there recently, as well as numerous other arrests for drug activity and even a murder.

Nevertheless, other businesses on the block use the alley for legitimate deliveries, and they need it open. After much discussion of the problem, the City Council recently came up with a compromise: Ask city administration to issue Sanchez a permit to gate his end of the alley at night. Hoped-for result: Sanchez - happy. Other business owners - happy. Drug dealers - unhappy.

(Red tape alert: If you want to get your alley closed, be prepared for much official paper-shuffling. Salt Lake resident Roger Zortman wanted to close an alley in front of his four-plex on Kelsey Avenue because drivers were zipping by literally inches away from the entrances, but it took him almost two years to get through "the tangled processes of government," as he put it.)

"It's funny that something as piddling as an alley can take so much time," said City Council budget and policy analyst Anne Gerber.

Notwithstanding Sanchez and other residents with alley problems, after a long dormancy they are becoming fashionable again. Alleys are, for example, an important element in a new arts and cultural plan for the city. The $60,000 study calls for a "sense of pedestrian orientation" and recommends mid-block passageways (read "alleys." For some reason official documents don't like to use the actual term) to encourage walking by reducing the length of Salt Lake City's large blocks.

Another publication, "Shaping Liveable Communities," directs city planners to use "human proportions and scale (and) encourage walking rather than riding by designing community paths and streets." The city's Futures Commission has also recommended that planners lay out pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods.

The approach has been dubbed neotraditional or, alternatively, new urbanism.

"(Alleys) help kids get to each other so they can play," said Cheri Carleson, an advocate for alleys. "They can be used for alternative transportation - bicycles, Rollerblades. . . . Right now we're very vehicle-oriented. People assume they need to shuttle their kids around."

It remains to be seen, however, whether alleys can be wholly reincorporated into the American lifestyle. In a culture revolving around the automobile and video games and television and the computer, whether residents are willing to maintain alleys and visit their neighbors and encourage their children to play there is an open question. The days of The Little Rascals and stickball and playing cards on bicycle spokes have largely disappeared.

"Unfortunately, times have changed," Milner said.