“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.
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.”
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.”