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“Some people across the way,” Wilson says as she points to a condo complex abutting the alley, “mentioned they were going to buy beach chairs. Well, I had beach chairs. I just pulled some out and gave them away. Another girl, over there, she hurt her leg, and I gave her crutches.” Parked beside us, her boyfriend’s SUV is loaded with pillows Wilson will deliver to an elderly widower for whom she cleans. (We Southerners would call Wilson’s garage a “getting place,” after the outbuildings where our ancestors hoarded potentially useful items in hard times.)

From what I see, there doesn’t appear to be much that Wilson doesn’t have to give. “I once found a full nitrogen tank in a La Jolla alley, but I didn’t know what to do with it so I left it,” she says.

“I bring all my clutter here. Easy to drop off, to load up,” says Wilson, who looks more like a tennis instructor than your average alley scavenger. But the best part is, she says, that in the alley there’s lots of “interaction with people” passing through.

“This is my refuge,” says Wilson.

Cutting Loose

I’m a girl. I like alleys.

I like knowing about the secret parking behind Warwick’s and Kensington Video. I like shortcuts. I like to speculate about people’s real lives after peering into their backyards. I like finding cool things hidden in alleys, like the U.S. map made of license plates on a certain Pacific Beach garage and the Katnip Kafe contraption somebody built to feed alley cats.

I like how plants growing in alleys are still green because they’ve been making do all along. I love the hubbub of commercial alleys.

The New Urbanists like alleys too. New Urbanism is an American design movement that promotes user-friendly neighborhoods based on principles derived from “old” town/city elements that worked. (You can see the effect of New Urbanism on real estate developments around San Diego, for example, Corky McMillin’s Liberty Station.) According to Robert Steuteville and Philip Langdon, coauthors of New Urbanism: Best Practices Guide, alleys are a New Urbanism favorite because, among other things, they force parking off the street and offer pedestrians alternative walk routes.

One day in a Bay Park alley, I spot two fellow alley walkers. Their gait says it all. Alley walkers cut loose. We stride, walk abreast, gesture wildly. These two are also waving and calling out to folks working inside the open delivery doors.

I introduce myself.

Coworkers Debbie Bales and Art Walker take this alley almost every day. It’s the most direct route from work to the deli for lunch. “Or to Starbucks,” Bales says. “And to the bank,” Walker says. In the alley there’s less traffic, they say. “No stopping at lights,” Bales says. “No jaywalking,” Walker says.

But the best part, they both agree, and the real reason they go this way, is Jeffery.

Jeffery manages the alley. He keeps it clean, sweeping up broken glass and breaking down boxes. A Sasquatch-sized man, he also keeps the alley safe. No vehicle or person gets past him that doesn’t belong.

“I’d introduce you,” Bales says, “but he’s sleeping over there, in front of that truck. He usually sleeps till the afternoon because he guards everything at night.”

“All the local businesses support him,” says Walker.

“Every business on the alley does,” says Bales.

“We all do,” says Walker.

“Shoes, money, whatever,” says Bales. She makes me promise not to tell where the alley is, so as not to endanger Jeffery or his livelihood. I promise.

When I go around the corner to buy my sandwich, I ask the woman behind the counter if she knows the homeless man who lives in the alley. She smiles and nods.

“Sure. Everybody knows Jeff.”

Curves

Mission Beach has more alleys per square foot than any other part of the city.

According to the Journal of San Diego History, in the early 20th Century John D. Spreckels and his developers divvied up the primo waterfront property into lots situated on walkways. For vehicle access (of little concern at the time), they squeezed in a series of narrow alleys that bisect and parallel Mission Boulevard. That’s why driving down Mission, you’ll see that the walkways (courts) have names and most side streets (which are really alleys) don’t.

Today I’m alley strolling in South Mission with Jan Hensley Gable and her mom Betty Walker, 87. As we walk eastward on the alley south of Balboa Court, Walker tells me that in the 1960s it was safe enough for a child of 5 to run all the way to the jetty via the alleys.

Gable and Walker live in the Balboa Court bungalow where Gable grew up, with the understandable noblesse oblige of original residents. After all, Gable’s first pet was an octopus. “On the court,” says mom Walker, “we had five families and six religions. Jew, Christian, Catholic, Mormon, atheist, and Self-Realization. All the kids played together. And one day, the little atheist girl took on Jan. It tickled us grown-ups to death. Our kids out in the alley fighting over whether or not there was a God.”

Walker, a scuba diver, used to bring home abalone and put all the children to work on an alley assembly line to clean and bread the shellfish for neighborhood cookouts. “We’d play dodgeball and hide-and-seek in the alley till it was so dark you couldn’t see,” says her daughter. At cocktail hour the grown-ups would sit out, not on the court side, but in their tiny unfenced backyards. Gable says you could see the couples with their highballs, lined up, on either side of the alley, which provided just enough buffer zone to make the Southern California dream feel real for all.

The South Mission kids would ride bikes up to the North Mission alleys to spy on seamier sights. “North Mission was more like OB, more transient,” says Gable. “The alleys up there felt dangerous.”

Gable didn’t realize how different her neighborhood was until she got to La Jolla High. “I had a crush on this guy, and he drove down in his dad’s Porsche. Soon as he knew I lived on an alley, he never talked to me again.”

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Comments

whyigotahaveid Sept. 17, 2009 @ 6:48 p.m.

i lived in cliaremont as a boy, roamed the canyons all the way to the bay. then to linda vista roamed the streets at night. then mira mesa , the malls .utc. icehouse. finally east san diego at 16 years of age. how fun the alleys were. many a great treasure was found . fruit to be picked hanging over fences , seeing men tinker with thier hot rods , older men polishing their classic cars . stopping to chat.

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violadace Sept. 18, 2009 @ 5:11 a.m.

wow, whyigotahaveid. That's poetry. better than the story above. you made me taste it.

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kriketx Sept. 20, 2009 @ 6:54 a.m.

Alex's article has made me appreciate my morning walks more than ever. I have always enjoyed walking the alleys over the streets. My dog knows every house that has a dog living there and I have learned so much about the personalities of the people that live in your zip code. The front is usually a facade, but the back is who they really are.

I live in Dallas, TX, and even though we have many alleys they seem to have no comparison to the ones described in this article. Or... maybe I just haven't explored enough of them. I'm inspired.

Who knew (I didn't), that cities actually promote their alleys as a tourist attraction.

It is a quarter to nine (in the morning). I'm going to fill up my travel mug with coffee and jump in my SmartCar and head out of my neighborhood in search of interesting alleys. Then I am going to plan an interesting alley-side of my own house. A description of my character. It is time to let my neighbors know who I am. It would be great if I will inspire the rest of my neighborhood.

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mcmduke Sept. 20, 2009 @ 11:50 a.m.

"Cool"is the right word for this article. Having alleys to roam IS cool. I am from Dallas,Texas, and even though we do roam and pick up treasures in our alleys, there is no sub-culture of alley dwellers here (at least that I know of) and I personally don't even have an alley in back of my house, just an easement. A few years back I tried to grow a garden in my little easement and received a ticket for growing vegetables on city property! What a bunch of grouches! I would love to come to San Diego and do nothing but roam the alleyways. Hey maybe you could start a business that tours cool alleys in the area or an alley-way country club! What fun.

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shizzyfinn Sept. 22, 2009 @ 5:26 p.m.

I'm surprised that Ocean Beach alleys didn't get a shout-out in the article...they certainly seem to be popular among treasure-hunters and folks out doing some canning. I'd estimate that my alley, which is a few blocks off the beach, between Brighton and Cape May, is cruised by about 50 people per day.

OB comedian Steven Kendrick jokes that the recyclers who cruise OB alleys work for a syndicate of powerful families - the Aluminati.

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nan shartel Oct. 5, 2009 @ 6:38 p.m.

i loved this article so much i exported it to Canada

www.canadaka.net

they loved it up there

what happened to all the original comments on this???

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nan shartel Oct. 5, 2009 @ 7:34 p.m.

fish...i was wrong..this was all the comments on this one...i was thinking of the blond one which had 246 comment which still exist

duh!!!

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SDaniels Oct. 5, 2009 @ 10:28 p.m.

Hey fishikins. Good eveeennninggng :)

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SDaniels Oct. 5, 2009 @ 11:05 p.m.

She's a workin' and a studyin'!!

I slept from 2pm to 10pm, like a vampire bat, and now I'm ready to play, Puppy. Whatcha think of our nifty new blog comments page, thanks to Fish? :)

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CuddleFish Oct. 5, 2009 @ 11:37 p.m.

cooooooooooeeeeeeeeeee! Hello there, SD!! xxxxxxx

And hello to all the rest of us Reader regulars!!

I gotta go look at this page everybody's talking about!!

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SurfPuppy619 Oct. 6, 2009 @ 11:12 a.m.

Whatcha think of our nifty new blog comments page, thanks to Fish? :)

By SDaniels

They used to have the blog comment page about a year ago, maybe longer-and I could NOT figure out why they closed it down.

Yes, I like to the page, alot.

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