Xavier Nuez photographs alleys.
His candy-colored images of urban decay have been exhibited internationally, including here at the San Diego Art Institute, and featured on NPR.
Ruin is his gig. “History,” Nuez says. “Rust, bent metal, all the garbage strewn about.” He scouts locations in cities across North America and shoots alone, at night, in the “shunned places” people avoid even during the day. Recently in an Indianapolis alley he was “almost clobbered by a street gang.” He’s been held at gunpoint more than once.
But something even worse happened to Nuez last spring in Barrio Logan. The alleys were too good, he tells me. Too clean, too new, and too safe.
I’m interviewing him by phone at his home in the Bay Area. Nuez assures me he can find a “dirty corner” in any city, but, he says, “San Diego falls into the not-so-run-down category, which is great for San Diego” and not so great for him.
I can’t hold back. Passion overrides what little journalistic detachment I possess.
It’s because, I tell Nuez, we’re paradise-in-rehab. Our façade is what’s history. Crispy lawns. No jobs. More potholes than tourists. Alleys are where our life is! They’re like the last frontier —
The demilitarized zone in the people’s eternal war against the city —
Maybe even our greatest seminatural resource —
I mean, really, I ask him — Has he ever seen cooler alleys?
On the other end of the phone, there’s dead silence. I’ve totally blown this interview.
Finally, the closest thing to a national authority on the subject of urban alleys as I can find speaks.
“I agree. I think the word ‘cool’ is the right word,” says Xavier Nuez.
Google/Bing “San Diego alley,” and nine out of ten hits will start with the words “Body found in.” Photographer Nuez eventually admits he’d lined up a police detective who’d promised him a tour of San Diego’s worst alleys, and the guy flaked.
But today this Pacific Beach alley south of Chalcedony is sunny and deserted. Palm fronds clatter softly. Bougainvillea overwhelms low backyard fences. From where I stand in the dark garage, the alley outside is so neatly framed by the open garage door that it looks like a stage set of the perfect San Diego morning.
Jack Whalen hands me a beer. “I’m king of this alley,” Whalen says, then points west. “Down there, the king of that next alley is Tom Sweet. He’s 97.”
Whalen is a laconic, tan man in shorts and a chartreuse T-shirt. He’s been king of this Pacific Beach alley for 20 years, ever since he rented the two-car garage in which we’re standing. By law, he explains, landlords must provide parking with beach rentals, but some rent out garages separately because there’s such a demand for them. All Whalen’s friends rent illegal garages. It’s an alley subculture.
In Whalen’s case, the garage provides storage for his work tools, his mother’s Christmas decorations, and a bunch of stuff he’s picked up shopping in “Alleymart,” including a poster of Richard Nixon, a radial arm saw, and a parachute.
But the real value of “The Compound,” as he lovingly refers to his garage, is its social function. “It’s definitely a vortex,” Whalen says. “Once I open the garage door, they just start coming.” If his blue truck is parked out front, everyone knows the Coors is on ice. Seven days a week, daylight hours only. “I don’t want to piss off my neighbors,” says Whalen.
What exactly does his alley mean to him? I ask. “Privacy,” he shoots back. “The wives are in the house. Police are on the street. In PB, you can’t go out front and drink a beer anymore,” says Whalen. “This is all we’ve got left.” Whalen speaks fondly of his 80-year-old neighbor Ben, who in the last years before he passed away would sneak down the alley to Whalen’s garage to smoke and hide from his wife.
Once in a blue moon, Whalen says, the meter maid makes a stink about his buddies’ trucks parked in the alley. The “drive-by bitchouts” are the worst. That’s when wives drive by, stop outside Whalen’s garage, yell at husbands to get home, then roar off.
“Girls hate the alley,” says Whalen.
My friend Mary Trombley agrees. Growing up in Clairemont, she says, “You just always knew nothing good happened to girls in alleys.”
My Texas friend Barbara copies me on an email featuring a woman at a firing range, wearing a T-shirt that says, “Gun Control: The theory that a woman found dead in an alley, raped and strangled with her own pantyhose, is somehow morally superior to a woman explaining to police how her attacker got that fatal bullet wound.”
But a few blocks from Jack Whalen’s garage, in an alley near Grand and Hornblend, jazz floats from the open door of Alicia Raposa’s duplex, wafting bits of Ella Fitzgerald down the otherwise barren canyon of automatic garage doors.
Raposa, 24, lives in the only rental on the alley, and her front door is always open. “My dad swears I’m gonna get broken into, but I never have.” In four years of living here, the only trespassers have been stray cats who abuse the open-door policy.
A surfing instructor and SDSU double major in literature and furniture-making, Raposa needed something affordable. “When I first saw this place, I thought, ‘Cool. It’ll be cheaper because people won’t like the negative connotation of being in an alley.’ ” It was cheaper. It’s also bright and quiet.
Raposa points to a battered surfmobile just outside the front door. “You forget something in your car, and there it is. This is the best place I ever lived,” she says.
Across the alley, Heather Wilson sorts golf balls into a plastic bag. She’s standing outside an open garage, whose contents spill out and flood the pavement knee-deep around her. Like Jack Whalen, Wilson rents her Pacific Beach garage. She uses it to store the things she finds in alleys, on the street, or in the course of her work as owner of Heather’s Helping Hands, a cleaning and maintenance company.
“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.”
By this time, the girls and I have reached Bayside Lane, one of my favorite alleys. Bayside Lane is surprisingly quaint, not a quality often associated with San Diego. If you squint your eyes as you walk, the eclectic mix of building posteriors may remind you a little of Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley, albeit a larger, more paradisiacal version. Bayside Lane wends its way the length of Mission Beach, behind the houses along the bay. It’s interrupted by Mission Bay Park for a few blocks but explodes in a burst of glory at the rear of architect Ken Kellogg’s Babcock House: a 1959 tiki hut on steroids-laced LSD.
(Side note: Researchers Thomas Herzog and Jennifer Flynn-Smith found that people judged alleys with curves to be safer than straight alleys. I concur. All my favorite alleys, like Bayside Lane, have curves.)
At Babcock House, we turn to head back. Gable’s dog scarpers ahead. When cops and summer tenants aren’t happy to see her dogs off-leash in the alley, Gable is sanguine.
“It’s hard for them to understand,” she says. “All of this used to be my backyard.”
I met Steve Marchand in the alley I always take when I walk to the library.
Marchand, a trim man in Italian cycling gear, was fiddling with his truck’s innards. A buddy sat on a chrome chopper so shiny the bicycle looked as if it was made of water. An open storage shed revealed a veritable Tiffany’s of man-junk.
Something about Marchand’s imperious command of the Clairemont alley’s space made an unlikely tableau, not unlike the time I took a dark passageway in Manchester, England, and came upon a statue of Abraham Lincoln.
A few weeks later, we sit in the alley under a beach umbrella, which is as much fun as it sounds. Of the parade of people who walk or ride by, all of them know Marchand and speak, except for the girl who needs a light. She doesn’t know him personally but has seen him “working on his truck a lot.” He introduces himself before he lights her cigarette.
“This is a community back here. It’s not like on the sidewalk, where people won’t look you in the eye. I assure you, when somebody moves in here, it’s ‘Hi! How you doing? Need anything? My name’s Steve. Here’s my number.’ I can’t see people for a year and not know their name.”
On cue, a lady yells across the alley to Steve, “Is it recycle day today?”
“Next week,” he yells back. “She’s a new neighbor. Lots of kids.” He tells me the story of an alley-neighbor woman who pulled a van up to her garage and loaded her things in a fury. Steve pulled his “Hi, how’s it going,” and the woman let loose: “Well, when he gets home, he’ll sure have a surprise.” Steve didn’t see the man come home, but he says he did see him not long after and that he “was in a pretty foul mood for about a month” until he moved his new ladyfriend in.
“There was a whole party culture here in the ’70s,” says Marchand. “You could have a full night’s do-whatever-you-do, walking from one end of this alley to the next. Garage doors open. People partying, one garage to the next.”
For all his alley geniality, Marchand insists that he is a backstage guy. He’s been a stagehand, sound engineer, and electronics installer and has the stuff to prove it. Marchand can make just about anything happen, or as he puts it, “I like to play Oz.” The alley affords him space for projects that are “too big or not appropriate to the yard,” which included the life-sized Santa in a drag racer (with real flames!) Marchand mounted on the roof of his family’s Clairemont home last Christmas.
Behind us, a motley crew of handmade outbuildings pushes right up to the alley pavement. “My mandatory off-street parking is dedicated to a recording studio,” Marchand says, as well as a workshop where he builds custom chopper cycles.
He may just be the man to answer my questions about alley regulations and codes. My queries to the City’s Streets Division were forwarded to Bill Harris of the mayor’s office, who emailed me that “staff is not available to assist with this request.”
So I try Marchand.
He admits he’s had a few friendly form letters from the Neighborhood Code Compliance Division, all of which he successfully addressed. “My concern is keeping my neighbors happy, first and foremost. You can pretty much do whatever you want unless somebody complains. It’s a system that operates on complaints. You know, conflicts of lifestyle,” says Marchand.
“Otherwise, you’re on your own out here.”
San Diego artist Duke Windsor is a plein-air painter of alleys. In a tradition that includes such masters as John Singer Sargent, Windsor sets up easel and stool and on the spot, quickly captures what he sees in front of him before the light changes. No ancient cobbled passageways, Windsor’s cityscapes are composed of trash cans, telephone poles, patchy pavement, and an occasional drug deal.
Looking at a roomful of his work, I don’t recognize the exact locations, but I feel as though I know all the alleys in his canvasses. “It’s the palm trees,” Windsor says. “In San Diego alleys, there’s always a palm tree.”
Signs were early that his artistic talent might take him down a road less traveled. When Windsor was five, he upset his mother by throwing away the directions to the little paint-by-numbers kit she gave him and painting the canvas his own way.
A former combat illustrator in the Marines, where he rode rodeo bulls in his free time, Windsor sang classical tenor in the San Diego Opera chorus. When he painted, he painted for fun, mostly martial arts scenes. Gallery owners liked his realist style but not the subject.
“I walked everywhere in those days, and the alleys were my shortcuts. I turned down this one alley, and the sun was just cresting down and squeaking through the buildings. I ran home to get my little cheap camera to capture it, but when I got back the light had changed,” says Windsor.
That was it. Soon he was painting on-site and selling the miniature watercolors of alleys at neighborhood coffeehouses. He graduated to larger canvases, acrylic paints, and a better camera to photograph alleys. (Windsor’s large paintings and his after-dark ones are composites created from his library of photographs.)
One cold night, Windsor was shooting in a North Park alley when police cars pulled up in front of him and behind. One of the cops got out and demanded to see identification, which Windsor had left in his car a few blocks away. He was struggling to explain what he was up to when a second cop walked up.
“Duke, is that you?” said the second cop. Turns out he knew Windsor from Twiggs, where he’d bought one of the alley paintings.
Now Windsor is director of exhibits at the USS Midway, and his work is shown by fine art galleries in Laguna Beach and Carlsbad. “People who come to my shows often tell me how they grew up playing in alleys,” Windsor says. He tells them he played football in the grass alley behind his Texarkana, Texas, home.
I ask Windsor if he has a favorite San Diego alley.
He does. It’s in North Park between Boundary and Bancroft, behind the Thrifty convenience store on University, he says, where the alley goes up a hill and the sky is crosshatched by hundreds of power lines.
And then he shows me the painting.
The little Honda putts along a rutted alleyway in the heart of Imperial Beach, and I wish Jack Whalen could hear the girl-squeals inside the car. We sound like a shopping spree in Beverly Hills. “That way!” “No, down there!” “Look!” “Look!”
We’re searching for treasures, Jane Campbell, her daughter Caroline Kaine, 12, and I. Campbell honed her treasure-hunting skills in Coronado, where residents know to scour alleys for leftovers after the weekly garage-sale day.
Now Campbell lives in Imperial Beach, where the alleys are “simpler.” (That’s her kind way of saying IB alleys tend to be a bit humbler in the treasure department. Campbell is a special ed teacher at Hilltop High School and a kinder than usual human being.)
Campbell’s bungalow is full of rehabilitated, self-confident objects that pass for heirlooms. And this is what we’re prospecting for today, Campbell reminds me. Not trash put out in the alley, but treasures that “need love and attention and that you can add your own ‘ism’ to. Your own flair or art and make it uniquely yours.”
(In his Clairemont alley Steve Marchand found a 1907 pump organ, which he completely restored.)
Today all we see are old couches. Five dirt-colored, puffy-pillowed couches parked in five different alleys. Campbell says cheerily, “Well, I guess we’re learning what’s not in style these days.”
Finally, I spot gold. By a clump of trash cans at the end of a short driveway stand a small bookcase, two baskets, and a trivet. I hop out. The bookcase is fiberboard. The shelves are collapsed. All the love in the world won’t save it. I grab the baskets and trivet.
In the car we examine our treasures. “Pretty!” Campbell says, tracing the design on the trivet. “Mushrooms, blueberries. It’s enameled!”
“Will you hang it in the kitchen?” Caroline asks from the back seat.
“We’ll see,” says her mom.
Kyle Kaine, 15, is home when we get back. He’s only mildly curious about our alley adventure until his sister mentions the couches. “Cool,” Kyle says. “A free couch! Wow. I could put it on the roof and sit up there all day.”
Campbell smiles at me. “See,” she says. “Treasures.”
La Jolla alleys are lanes, say their street signs.
According to Carol Olten of the La Jolla Historical Society, this affectation was most likely the doing of Ellen Browning Scripps, the London-born culturist who almost single-handedly drove her dusty hamlet into the 20th Century. “Miss Scripps decided that La Jolla should have lanes and that they should have names, preferably nice names,” suggests Olten.
If that’s true, I survived my first year in San Diego thanks to Miss Scripps.
I had moved cross-country from North Carolina to a rental in La Jolla village because my teenage son had opted for post-divorce life with Dad. (Dad’s pad was a block from Windansea.)
No job. No friends. No money.
And I walked. My Jack Russell terriers and I knew every inch of La Jolla alleyways, which were blessedly free of tourists and full of quirky landmarks such as the Villa Waldo, a yellow Victorian built by La Jolla’s first woman realtor and moved in the 1930s to its current location in Drury Lane. Along Roslyn Lane, I’d visit with the gentleman tailor or the surfer/barista whose mother bought the tiny walk-up coffee shop to save him from more unsavory pursuits.
I saw little of my son, between school and Windansea and his job as a fishmonger. But in the alleys, occasionally my heart bounced when I’d spot his tag — a single word that is his middle name and mine — artfully scripted on an electrical box or bit of tarp, and so discreet only a mother’s eye would see. I wondered if a love of alleys might be genetic. (It’s certainly not a gender trait, as I hope Jack Whalen now understands.)
In La Jolla I’m far from alone in my appreciation of alleys. They feature prominently in the walking guide sold by the La Jolla Historical Society. Businesses like Quint Contemporary Art on Drury Lane and high-end homes like the postmodernist residences “Bluebird I&II” on Bluebird Lane (cited in San Diego Architecture by Dirk Sutro) have made alley locations part of their La Jolla chic.
“The more ins and outs a property has, the better. Especially here,” says La Jolla realtor Terri Andrews. “As traffic increases, the option to reorient your home to a quieter, alley side is a big plus.”
That’s exactly what Dave McLeod did. The retired bartender rents out the house on Cuvier Street he bought almost 30 years ago and lives in a cottage he built off the alley. “It’s great,” laughs McLeod. “Nobody knows I’m here.”
After ten years in San Diego, I have friends. I even have a new husband. My terriers, long gone, have been replaced by a black mutt, and with husband and mutt, or sometimes alone, I’ve walked a hundred miles of alleyways.
Last week at a cocktail party in Bird Rock, the hostess invited a few of us to see her tomatoes. Leaving the castellated courtyard abounding with good wine and long-distance cyclists, we passed through the garage into a dirt alley.
The others admired the small secret garden tucked against the back of a neighbor’s fence and returned inside. But I stood still, there in the dusty alley, caught by that thing we forget we need until we happen upon it.
There was no sound of the party. Evening’s onshore breeze rustled the weedy green trees and tall grasses that had flourished, like the espaliered tomatoes, in that wild space outside the fence line.
And beyond, I watched above alley’s end as the last of my day melted into a silver ribbon of sea.