The Hidden Life of a Downtown Alleyway

I watched a man being murdered outside my window in the alley the other night, several times. It wasn't really that unusual. It was nowhere near as odd as looking out my window over that same alley one morning a few years back to find a Roman market full of livestock and gladiators. These things happen. You get used to them.

The alley (sometimes called Fire Street) that runs the length of Gay Street's 100 Block plays host to a lot of things. Serving as a popular film set is only one of them. In fact, in terms of mixed use, it may be one of the most diverse places in downtown. Plunging sharply downhill from the parking lot in front of O.P. Jenkins Furniture and emerging cave-like from beneath the brick ramp of Jackson Avenue by the old warehouses, it's the one place you can get a feel for what the terrain of that block was like before the street was elevated, burying much of the front of the block to accommodate the Gay Street viaduct. For the better part of its life, it's been what most alleys are, a part of the hidden infrastructure of the city. And it still is. But nowadays it's more.

It wasn't always this way, of course. Less than a decade ago it seemed a lot more like the prototypical "dark alley." It wasn't devoid of life. But it was the sort of place where things that you imagine might happen in dark alleys happened. Late one night, I awoke to hear a girl sobbing outside. As it turned out, she and her boyfriend were having a drunken lover's conversation on the stoop below, punctuated by occasional retching. One Sunday morning I awoke to my building vibrating with a series of thuds. I looked out to find three vagrants swinging a parking meter against the wall that they had snapped off the sidewalk, vainly trying to extract its contents. Nowadays you're more likely to hear skateboarders rocketing down the hill or spy someone doing a "gritty urban" photo shoot for a wedding or a fashion spread.

It still serves the traditional access needs alleys always have, like garbage collection and rear entry to the buildings that frame it. But it's also become what architects and planners refer to as a "pathway of desire." These are the routes that people take rather than the ones engineered and prescribed for them like sidewalks. There are several such alternate paths around downtown, many of which are other alleys. But over the past few years in particular, the 100 Block alley has seen a large increase in pedestrian traffic. That can be attributed to several factors, the greatest of which is the increase in the sheer number of people who live in and around the area nowadays. Many residents find it more convenient to enter their homes in the Commerce Buildings, the Sterchi Lofts, and the Emporium from the alley. And while it doesn't really save that many steps, it's a surprisingly popular connection between Gay Street and the Old City. Along with the considerable improvements made to the Gay Street face of the 100 Block over the past few years, the alley got a nice fresh concrete surface covering a century of asphalt paving and patching, giving it more of a sidewalk feel. Adding to that feel is a substantial increase in lighting, making it nearly as bright as any street downtown at night.

If it suffers at all as a pedestrian route, it's due to the fact that it also functions as a major above-ground drainage channel for the rainwater that falls on the rooftops on that side of the block, picking up increasing runoff as it descends the hill. With no escape until it reaches a drain at the bottom, it can turn into a river of rushing water by the time it gets there. In the winter, following a freezing rain, it can become a sheet of ice as perilous and daunting as a scene out of an Indiana Jones film.

I don't know much about the murder I witnessed from my kitchen window the other night. But from the stage blood I saw the next morning, it appears it was a gruesome slaying. Still, it was considerably lower-key than the Roman market scene, which I later learned was for a pilot being shot for the History Channel. For all I know, I may have been the only witness to that murder aside from the cameraman and director. One thing's for certain, that old alley has acquired a sort of photogenic patina in its long life that lends itself to becoming a lot of things. But for an increasing number of downtown denizens, it's a road less traveled, and a path to be desired.