I love alleys. I love the secret network of paths that run through neighborhoods, behind houses, where the tumble-down old outbuildings live. Even people who keep their front lawns obsessively tidy tend to let their back yards go a little wild. So the alleys, free of the monoculture of well-groomed lawns, are where the wild edibles thrive. Where the wild animals hide out. Where in winter you can follow rabbit tracks through unbroken snow, and where last week I saw an opossum waddling through the middle of the city in broad daylight. There are no wolves here anymore. These are the last traces of wildlife we have, these little scraps of the natural world.
The alleys of Fourth and Gill, the most walkable alleys in town, are in their prime at this time of year. The huge tree canopy has leafed out, and the mosquitoes are not as bad as they will be in August. It is the perfect time to go wandering.
There are almost no scary dogs in Fourth and Gill. Instead, there are golden retrievers and dachshunds kept in well-fenced yards. In other parts of the city, pit bulls slip their chains and stalk the alleys.
Fourth and Gill has glorious old trees. The catalpa trees, forgotten and left to their own devices, have made a mini Black Forest in a stretch of alley between Lovenia and Caswell. These alleys have not been sprayed with the same weed-killing poison that turns other Knoxville alleys dead and brown (like those recently sprayed by the city in Parkridge), so they are lush and full of birds like orioles, grackles and wrens—common birds, but rare in the city.
Also, the alleys of Fourth and Gill are worth walking because of the fabulous stuff that the residents set out with the trash on garbage pick-up day. I have salvaged nice old furniture, vintage jazz records, antique tile, and neat old fishing gear, among other treasures.
In a densely populated area where people have small yards, the alleys are essential as quiet walkways, as refuges from fast, noisy traffic. They are mini-parks for children. They are public spaces that feel private and secluded. I wish all of Knoxville’s paved residential streets were more like the alleys—narrower, rougher, with more wild greenery. I like the thought of cars driving slowly and cautiously through my neighborhood. I love the idea of children playing in the streets.
We have more asphalt in Knoxville than we need. We don’t need hard, smooth surfaces on our residential streets, since this only encourages cars to speed through our neighborhoods, frightening and intimidating the people who live there.
I love the rough beauty of the wild plants, the humble buildings, the narrow lane. We don’t need artificial facades and boring yards to prove we are sane and decent people. We prove this when we are brave enough to share our world with wild creatures, and secure enough in our humanity to accept the wilderness.