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An alley or alleyway is a narrow lane, path, or passage way, often for pedestrians only, which usually runs between or behind buildings in the older parts of towns and cities. The origin of the word alley is late Middle English: from Old French alee ‘walking or passage,’ from aler ‘go,’ from Latin ambulare ‘to walk’.
The word is used in two main ways:
In older cities and towns in Europe, alleys are often what is left of a medieval street network, or a right of way or ancient footpath. Similar paths also exist in some older North American towns and cities. In some older urban development in North America lanes at the rear of houses, to allow for deliveries and garbage collection, are called alleys. Alleys may be paved, or unpaved, and a blind alley is a cul-de-sac. Modern urban developments may also provide a service road to allow for waste collection, or rear access for fire engines and parking.
Because of geography steps (stairs) are the predominant form of alley in hilly cities and towns. This includes Pittsburgh (see Steps of Pittsburgh), Cincinnati (see Steps of Cincinnati), Seattle, and San Franscisco in the United States, as well as Hong Kong, and Rome.
Some alleys are roofed, such as the traboules of Lyon, and the pedestrian passages through railway embankments in Britain. The latter follow the line of rights-of way that existed before the railway was built. Arcades are another kind of covered passage way and the simplest kind are no more than alleys to which a glass roof was added later, like, for example, Howey Place, Melbourne, Australia (see also Block Place, Melbourne). However, most arcades differ from alleys in that they are architectural structures built with a commercial purpose and are a form of shopping mall. All the same alleys have for long been associated with various types of businesses, especially pubs and coffee houses (see also Bazaar and Souq).
Some attractive historic alleys are found in older American and Canadian cities, like Philadelphia, Charleston, South Carolina, Boston, Annapolis, New Castle, Delaware, Quebec City, St John's, Newfoundland, and Victoria, British Columbia.
Québec City was originally built on the riverside bluff Cap Diamant in the 17th century, and throughout Quebec City there are strategically placed public stairways that link the bluff to the lower parts of the city. The Upper City is the site of Old Québec’s most significant historical sites, including 17th- and 18th-century chapels, the Citadel and the city ramparts.
Fan Tan Alley is an alley in Victoria, British Columbia's Chinatown. It was originally a gambling district with restaurants, shops, and opium dens. Today it is a tourist destination with many small shops including a barber shop, art gallery, Chinese cafe and apartments. It may well be the narrowest street in Canada. At its narrowest point it is only 0.9 metres (35 in) wide. Waddington Alley is another interesting alley in Victoria and the only street in that city still paved with wood blocks, an early pavement common in the downtown core. Wood blocks underfoot is not the only heritage feature, because buildings more than a century old line the alley and a rare metal carriage curb edges the sidewalk on the southern end.
In the United States alleys exist in both older commercial and residential areas, for both service purposes and automobile access. In residential areas, primarily those built before 1950, alleys provide rear access to property where a garage was located, or where waste could be collected by service vehicles. A benefit of this was the location of these activities to the rear, less public side of a dwelling. Such alleys are typically roughly paved, but some may be dirt. Beginning in the late 20th century, they were seldom included in plans for new housing developments.
When Annapolis was established as a city at the beginning of the18th-century the streets were established in circles and this encouraged the creation of short cuts, which overtime became paved alleys. Some ten of these survive and the city has recently worked on making them more attractive.
In the Beacon Hill district of Boston, Massachusetts, Acorn Street, a narrow cobbled lane with row houses, is one of Boston's more attractive and historic alleys. Boston also has many of the more seedy kind. Another early settled American city, New Castle, Delaware has a number of interesting alleys, some of which are footpaths and others narrow, sometimes cobbled, lanes open to traffic. Many of the alleys in the Back Bay and South End area are numbered (e.g. "Public Alley 438").
In the French Quarter of Charleston’s historic district, Philadelphia Alley (c. 1766), originally named "Cow Alley", is one of several picturesque alleys. In 1810 William Johnson gave it the name of "Philadelphia Alley", although locals call the "elegantly landscaped thoroughfare" "Dueler’s Alley". Starting on East Bay Street, Stolls Alley is just seventeen bricks wide at its start, and named for Justinus Stoll, an 18th-century blacksmith. For three hundred years, another of Charleston's narrow lanes, Lodge Alley, served a commercial purpose. Originally French Hugenot merchants built homes on it, along with warehouses to store supplies their ships. Just ten-foot-wide this alley was a useful means of access to Charleston’s waterways. Today it leads to East Bay Street's many restaurants.
Cincinnati is a city of hills. Before the advent of the automobile a system of stairway alleys provided pedestrians important and convenient access to and from their hill top homes. At the height of their use in the 19th century, over 30 miles (48 km) of hill side steps once connected the neighborhoods of Cincinnati to each other. The first steps were installed by residents of Mount Auburn in the 1830s in order to gain easier access to Findlay Market in Over-the-Rhine. In recent years many steps have fallen into disrepair but there is a movement now to rehabilitate them.
New York City's Manhattan is unusual in that it has very few alleys, since the Commissioner's Plan of 1811 did not include rear service alleys when it created Manhattan's grid. The exclusion of alleys has been criticized as a flaw in the plan, since services such as garbage pickup cannot be provided out of sight of the public, although other commentators feel that the lack of alleys is a benefit to the quality of life of the city.
Two notable alleys in the Greenwich Village neighborhood in Manhattan are MacDougal Alley and Washington Mews. The latter is a blind alley or cul-de-sac. Greenwich Village also has a number of private alleys that lead to back houses, which can only be accessed by residents, including Grove Court, Patchin Place and Milligan Place, blind alleys. Patchin Place is notable for the writers who lived there.
Shubert Alley is a 300-foot (91 m) long pedestrian alley at the heart of the Broadway theater district of New York City. The alley was originally created as a fire exit between the Shubert Theatre on West 45th Street and the Booth Theatre on West 44th Street, and the Astor Hotel to their east. Actors once gathered in the alley, hoping to attract the attention of the Shubert Brothers and get employment in their theatrical productions. When the hotel was torn down, and replaced with One Astor Plaza (1515 Broadway), the apparent width of the alley increased, as the new building did not go all the way to the westernmost edge of the building lot. However, official, Shubert Alley consists only of the space between the two theatres and the lot line.
The Old City and Society Hill neighborhoods of Philadelphia, the oldest parts of the city, include a number of alleys, notably Elfreth's Alley, which is called "Our nation's oldest residential street", dating from 1702. As of 2012, there were 32 houses on the street, which were built between 1728 and 1836.
There are numerous cobblestoned residential passages in Philadelphia, many no wider than a truck, and typically flanked with brick houses. A typical house on these alleys or lanes is called a Philadelphia "Trinity", named because it has three rooms, one to each floor, alluding to the Christian Trinity. These alleys include Willings Alley, between S. 3rd and S. 4th Streets and Walnut and Spruce Streets. Other streets in Philadelphia which fit the general description of an alley, but are not named "alley", include Cuthbert Street, Filbert Street, Phillips Street, South American Street, Sansom Walk, St. James Place, and numerous others.
Steps, Pittsburgh's equivalent for an alley, have defined it for many visitors. Writing in 1937, war correspondent Ernie Pyle wrote of the steps of Pittsburgh:
And then the steps. Oh Lord, the steps! I was told they actually had a Department of Steps. That isn’t exactly true, although they do have an Inspector of Steps. But there are nearly 15 miles (24 km) of city-owned steps, going up mountainsides.
In hilly San Francisco, California alleys often take the form of steps and it has several hundred public stairways. Among the most famous is the stairway known as the Filbert steps, a continuation of Filbert Street. The Filbert Street Steps descend the east slope of Telegraph Hill along the line where Filbert Street would be if the hill was not so steep. The stairway is bordered by greenery, that consists both backyards, and a border garden tended to and paid for by the residents of the "street", and runs down to an eastern stub of Filbert Street and the walkway through the plaza to The Embarcadero. Many houses in this residential neighborhood are accessible only from the steps.
Also in San Francisco, Belden Place is a narrow pedestrian alley, bordered by restaurants, in the Financial District, referred to as San Francisco's French Quarter for its historic ties to early French immigrants, and its popular contemporary French restaurants and institutions. The area was home to San Francisco's first French settlers. Approximately 3,000, sponsored by the French government, arrived near the end of the Gold Rush in 1851.
Various cities in North America, including Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Montréal  have started to re-claim their alleys from garbage and crime by greening them; that is the service lanes, or back ways that run behind some houses. Chicago, Illinois has about 1,900 miles (3,100 km) of alleyways. In 2007, the Chicago Department of Transportation started converting conventional alleys which were paved with asphalt, into so called Green Alleys. This program, called the Green Alley Program, is supposed to enable easier water runoff, as the alleyways in Chicago are not connected to the sewer system. With this program, the water will be able to seep through semi-permeable concrete or asphalt in which a colony of fungi and bacteria will establish itself. The bacteria will help breakup oils before the water is absorbed into the ground. The lighter color of the pavement will also reflect more light, making the area next to the alley cooler. The greening of such alleys or laneways can also involve the planting of native plants to further absorb rain water and moderate temperature.
New life has also come to other alleys, within down town commercial districts of various cities throughout the world, with the opening of businesses, such as coffee houses, shops, restaurants and bars.
Another way that alleys and laneways are being revitalized, is through laneway housing. A laneway house is a form of housing that has been proposed on the west coast of Canada, especially in the Metro Vancouver area. These homes are typically built into pre-existing lots, usually in the backyard and opening onto the back lane. This form of housing already exists in Vancouver and revised regulations now encourage new developments, as part of a plan to increase urban density in pre-existing neighbourhoods, while retaining a single-family feel within the area. Vancouver's average laneway house is one and a half stories, with one or two bedrooms. Typical regulations require that the laneway home is built in the back half of a traditional lot in the space that is normally reserved for a garage.
Toronto also has a tradition of laneway housing and changed regulations to encourage new development. However this was discontinued in 2006, after staff reviewed the impact on services and safety.
London has numerous interesting, historical alleys, especially, but not exclusively, in its centre; this includes The City, Covent Garden, Holborn, Clerkenwell, Westminster and Bloomsbury amongst others.
An alley in London can also be called a passage, court, place, lane, and less commonly path, arcade, walk, steps, yard, terrace, and close. While both a court and close are usually defined as blind alleys, or cul-de-sacs, several in London are throughways, for example Cavendish Court, a narrow passage leading from Houndsditch into Devonshire Square, and Angel Court, which links King Street and Pall Mall. Bartholomew Close is a narrow winding lane which can be called an alley by virtue of its narrowness, and because through-access requires the use of passages and courts between Little Britain, and Long Lane and Aldersgate Street.
In an old neighbourhood of the City of London, Exchange Alley or Change Alley is a narrow alleyway connecting shops and coffeehouses. It served as a convenient shortcut from the Royal Exchange on Cornhill to the Post Office on Lombard Street and remains as one of a number of alleys linking the two streets. The coffeehouses of Exchange Alley, especially Jonathan's and Garraway's, became an early venue for the lively trading of shares and commodities. These activities were the progenitor of the modern London Stock Exchange.
Lombard Street and Change Alley had been the open-air meeting place of London's mercantile community before Thomas Gresham founded the Royal Exchange in 1565. In 1698, John Castaing began publishing the prices of stocks and commodities in Jonathan's Coffeehouse, providing the first evidence of systematic exchange of securities in London.
In 1761 a club of 150 brokers and jobbers was formed to trade stocks. The club built its own building in nearby Sweeting's Alley in 1773, dubbed the "New Jonathan's", later renamed the Stock Exchange.
West of the City there are a number of alleys just north of Trafalgar Square, including Brydges Place which is situated right next to the Coliseum Theatre and just 15 inches wide at its narrowest point, only one person can walk down it at a time. It is the narrowest alley in London and runs for 200 yards (180 m), connecting St Martin's Lane with Bedfordbury in Covent Garden.
Close by is another very narrow passage, Lazenby Court, which runs from Rose Street to Floral Street down the side of the Lamb and Flag pub; in order to pass people must turn slightly sideways. The Lamb & Flag in Rose Street has a reputation as the oldest pub in the area, though records are not clear. The first mention of a pub on the site is 1772. The Lazenby Court was the scene of an attack on the famous poet and playwright John Dryden in 1679 by thugs hired by John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, with whom he had a long-standing conflict.
In the same neighbourhood Cecil Court has an entirely different character than the two previous alleys, and is a spacious pedestrian street with Victorian shop-frontages that links Charing Cross Road with St. Martin's Lane, and it is sometimes used as a location by film companies.
One of the older thoroughfares in Covent Garden, Cecil Court dates back to the end of the 17th century. A tradesman's route at its inception, it later acquired the nickname Flicker Alley because of the concentration of early film companies in the Court. The first film-related company arrived in Cecil Court in 1897, a year after the first demonstration of moving pictures in the United Kingdom and a decade before London’s first purpose built cinema opened its doors. Since the 1930s it has been known as the new Booksellers' Row as it is home to nearly twenty antiquarian and second-hand independent bookshops.
It was the temporary home of an eight-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart while he was touring Europe in 1764. For almost four months the Mozart family lodged with barber John Couzin. According to some modern authorities, Mozart composed his first symphony while a resident of Cecil Court.
North of the centre of London, Camden Passage is a pedestrian passage off Upper Street in the London Borough of Islington, famous because of its many antiques shops, and an antique market on Wednesdays and Saturday mornings. It was built, as an alley, along the backs of houses on Upper Street, then Islington High Street, in 1767.
The Snickelways of York, in Yorkshire, often misspelt Snickleways, are a collection of small streets, footpaths, or lanes between buildings, not wide enough for a vehicle to pass down, and usually public rights of way. York has many such paths, mostly mediaeval, though there are some modern paths as well. They have names like any other city street, often quirky names such as Mad Alice Lane, Hornpot Lane Nether and even Finkle Street (formerly Mucky Peg Lane). The word Snickelway was coined by local author Mark W. Jones in 1983 in his book A Walk Around the Snickelways of York, and is a portmanteau of the words snicket, meaning a passageway between walls or fences, ginnel, a narrow passageway between or through buildings, and alleyway, a narrow street or lane. Although a neologism, the word quickly became part of the local vocabulary, and has even been used in official council documents.
Outside of London there are numerous other words used locally to describe alleys, or narrow paths and lanes between, or behind buildings.
In both places the Scots terms close, wynd, pend and vennel are general in most towns and cities. The term close has an unvoiced "s" as in sad. The Scottish author Ian Rankin's novel Fleshmarket Close was retitled Fleshmarket Alley for the American market. Close is the generic Scots term for alleyways, although they may be individually named closes, entries, courts and wynds. A close was private property, hence gated and closed to the public.
A wynd is typically a narrow lane between houses, an open throughway, usually wide enough for a horse and cart. The word derives from Old Norse venda, implying a turning off a main street, without implying that it is curved. In fact, most wynds are straight. In many places wynds link streets at different heights and thus are mostly thought of as being ways up or down hills.
A pend is a passageway that passes through a building, often from a street through to a courtyard, and typically designed for vehicular rather than exclusively pedestrian access. A pend is distinct from a vennel or a close, as it has rooms directly above it, whereas vennels and closes are not covered over.
A vennel is a passageway between the gables of two buildings which can in effect be a minor street in Scotland and the north east of England, particularly in the old centre of Durham. In Scotland, the term originated in royal burghs created in the twelfth century, the word deriving from the Old French word venelle meaning "alley" or "lane". Unlike a tenement entry to private property, known as a "close", a vennel was a public way leading from a typical high street to the open ground beyond the burgage plots. The Latin form is venella.
Schönlaterngasse ("beautiful lantern alley") is a small winding alleyway in central Vienna. In the Middle Ages it was known as Straße der Herren von Heiligenkreuz ("street of the gentlemen of Heiligenkreuz"), as it passes the Heiligenkreuzer Hof ("Holy Cross courtyard"). The buildings along the alley date back to Baroque times. Schönlaterngasse originally terminated in an alleyway that was removed to make way for the Jesuitenkirche, upon which it was lengthened to Postgasse, where it still ends today. Composer Robert Schumann stayed at 7a Schönlaterngasse from October 1838 to April 1839.
The so-called "beautiful lantern" is currently in Vienna’s City Museum, but a replica was installed in its original location in 1971. The street is home to several eating and drinking establishments. Schönlaterngasse has been on Austrian postage stamps four times. It can also be seen in Carol Reed's The Third Man 
Spreuerhofstraße is the world's narrowest street, found in the city of Reutlingen, Baden-Württemberg, Germany. It ranges from 31 centimetres (12.2 in) at its narrowest to 50 centimetres (19.7 in) at its widest. The lane was built in 1727 during the reconstruction efforts after the area was completely destroyed in the massive city-wide fire of 1726 and is officially listed in the Land-Registry Office as City Street Number 77.
Lintgasse is an alley (German: Gasse) in the Old town of Cologne, Germany between the two squares of Alter Markt and Fischmarkt. It is a pedestrian zone and though only some 130 metres long, is nevertheless famous for its medieval history. The Lintgasse was first mentioned in the 12th century as in Lintgazzin, which may be derived from basketmakers who wove fish baskets out of Linden tree barks. These craftsmen were called Lindslizer, meaning Linden splitter. During the Middle Ages, the area was also known as platēa subri or platēa suberis, meaning street of Quercus suber, the cork oak tree. Lintgasse 8 to 14 used to be homes of medieval knights as still can be seen by signs like Zum Huynen, Zum Ritter or Zum Gir. During the 19th-century the Lintgasse was called Stink-Linkgaß, a because of its poor air quality.
Gränd is Swedish for an alley and there are numerous gränder, or alleys in Gamla stan, The Old Town, of Stockholm, Sweden. The town dates back to the 13th century, with medieval alleyways, cobbled streets, and historic buildings. North German architecture has had a strong influence in the Old Town's buildings. Some of Stockholm's alleys are very narrow pedestrian footpaths, while others are very narrow, cobbled streets, or lanes open to slow moving traffic. Mårten Trotzigs gränd ("Alley of Mårten Trotzig") runs from Västerlånggatan and Järntorget up to Prästgatan and Tyska Stallplan, and part of it consists of 36 steps. At its narrowest the alley is a mere 90 cm (35 inches) wide, making it the narrowest street in Stockholm. The alley is named after the merchant and burgher Mårten Trotzig (1559–1617), who, born in Wittenberg, immigrated to Stockholm in 1581, and bought properties in the alley in 1597 and 1599, also opening a shop there. According to sources from the late 16th century, he was dealing in first iron and later copper, by 1595 had sworn his burgher oath, and was later to become one of the richest merchants in Stockholm.
Possibly referred to as Trångsund ("Narrow strait") before Mårten Trotzig gave his name to the alley, it is mentioned in 1544 as Tronge trappe grenden ("Narrow Alley Stairs"). In 1608 it is referred to Trappegrenden ("The Stairs Alley"), but a map dated 1733 calls it Trotz gränd. Closed off in the mid 19th century, not to be reopened until 1945, its present name was officially sanctioned by the city in 1949.
The "List of streets and squares in Gamla stan" provides links to many pages that describe other alleys in the oldest part of Stockholm; e.g. Kolmätargränd (Coal Meter's Alley); Skeppar Karls Gränd (Skipper Karl's Alley); Skeppar Olofs Gränd (Skipper Olof's Alley); and Helga Lekamens Gränd (Alley of the Holy Body).
Hutongs (simplified Chinese: 胡同; traditional Chinese: 衚衕; pinyin: hútòng; Wade–Giles: hu-t'ung) are a type of narrow streets or alleys, commonly associated with northern Chinese cities, most prominently Beijing.
In Beijing, hutongs are alleys formed by lines of siheyuan, traditional courtyard residences. Many neighbourhoods were formed by joining one siheyuan to another to form a hutong, and then joining one hutong to another. The word hutong is also used to refer to such neighbourhoods. During China’s dynastic period, emperors planned the city of Beijing and arranged the residential areas according to the social classes of the Zhou Dynasty (1027 – 256 BC). The term "hutong" appeared first during the Yuan Dynasty, and is a term of Mongolian origin meaning "town".
At the turn of the 20th century, the Qing court was disintegrating as China’s dynastic era came to an end. The traditional arrangement of hutongs was also affected. Many new hutongs, built haphazardly and with no apparent plan, began to appear on the outskirts of the old city, while the old ones lost their former neat appearance.
Following the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, many of the old hutongs of Beijing disappeared, replaced by wide boulevards and high rises. Many residents left the lanes where their families lived for generations for apartment buildings with modern amenities. In Xicheng District, for example, nearly 200 hutongs out of the 820 it held in 1949 have disappeared. However, many of Beijing’s ancient hutongs still stand, and a number of them have been designated protected areas. Many hutongs, some several hundred years old, in the vicinity of the Bell Tower and Drum Tower and Shichahai Lake are preserved amongst recreated contemporary two- and three-storey versions.
Hutongs represent an important cultural element of the city of Beijing and the hutongs are residential neighborhoods which still form the heart of Old Beijing. While most Beijing hutongs are straight, Jiudaowan (九道弯, literally "Nine Turns") Hutong turns nineteen times. At its narrowest section, Qianshi Hutong near Qianmen (Front Gate) is only 40 centimeters (16 inches) wide.
Shinjuku Golden Gai (新宿ゴールデン街?) is a small area of Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan, famous both as an area of architectural interest and for its nightlife. It is composed of a network of six narrow alleys, connected by even narrower passageways which are just about wide enough for a single person to pass through. Over 200 tiny shanty-style bars, clubs and eateriesare squeezed into this area.
Its architectural importance is that it provides a view into the relatively recent past of Tokyo, when large parts of the city resembled present-day Golden Gai, particularly in terms of the extremely narrow lanes and the tiny two-storey buildings. Nowadays, most of the surrounding area has been redeveloped. Typically, the buildings are just a few feet wide and are built so close to the ones next door that they nearly touch. Most are two-storey, having a small bar at street level and either another bar or a tiny flat upstairs, reached by a steep set of stairs. None of the bars are very large; some are so small that they can only fit five or so customers at one time. The buildings are generally ramshackle, and the alleys are dimly lit, giving the area a very scruffy and run-down appearance. However, Golden Gai is not a cheap place to drink, and the clientele that it attracts is generally well off.
Golden Gai is well known as a meeting place for musicians, artists, directors, writers, academics and actors, including many celebrities. Many of the bars only welcome regular customers, who initially should be introduced by an existing patron, although many others welcome non-regulars, some even making efforts to attract overseas tourists by displaying signs and price lists in English.
Golden Gai was known for prostitution before 1958, when prostitution became illegal. Since then it has developed as a drinking area, and at least some of the bars can trace their origins back to the 1960s.