Image above and Feature image: alley life; source: DC Public library

Before we dive into the history and unique characteristics of Washington DC ‘s alleys, we need to take a step back and talk about the urban planning of the city as it presents a unique condition for the existence and configuration of its alleyways. Washington DC is the only city in the United States designed with Baroque planning principles. It is not a secret that L’Enfant was emulating the Haussmann’s plan for Paris, with its large blocks, grid pattern cut through with large diagonal boulevards, and round points with beautiful monuments at their intersections.

plan of DC_1798.jpg

Plan of Washington DC, 1798; source: raremaps.com

When Washington was initially developed, the city was primarily a pedestrian city with limited transportation alternatives. Following the Civil War, DC became a strong destination for the nation’s freed slaves and migrants coming from rural areas. According to Borchert’s “Alley Life in Washington,” Washington’s population grew from 60,000 to 110,000 within a decade of the Civil War, and nearly half of the new residents were African American.

talley ho stable-archivesAt the time, the pedestrian reliance to access employment, food, etc. and the limited expansion possibilities pushed the city not to grow outwards but instead, to grow inwards. Contingent on the latter, the city’s large blocks, which were already cut into with alleys for the placement of stables and carriage houses, began to be developed with new worker’s housing.

Breaking it down, alley houses and much of the alley developments happened in two manners:

-The first involved the street property owners who realized there was a shortage of accessible housing for their workers and thus, built housing in the vacant rear lots on the back side of their properties.

-The second involved small to medium developers who saw this as a profitable opportunity and began to create small structures and dwellings throughout.

1852 to 1984 subdivision of alley into new lots_Atlas of Pklat Sqaures, DC, 1852 and Faehtz and Pratt Real Estate Directory of the City of Washington, 1874.jpg

Dispersed throughout the city and mixed in with upper class residents and residences facing the main streets, the alleys housed large working class communities. Spatially speaking, DC could have indeed been considered a city with racially integrated blocks and neighborhoods. In reality, however, these blocks reflected a strong racial divide: the majority of the white population primarily lived on street facing housing, while the black communities were mainly restricted to the alleys.

“While alley housing was largely a response to the constraints of the pedestrian city, it was also the result of many individual decisions by landowners, builders, and others to an apparently inexhaustible demand for low-cost housing. The potential for profit, and the efforts to realize it, profoundly affected the nature and character of the alley communities that developed.” (Bochert James, p.23)


Alley life; source: DC Public Library

In the late XIX century a new legislation made it impossible to create dwellings in alleys less than 30 feet wide. Many of the alley dwellings, constructed on speculation, were smaller, cheaply built and many times, lacked basic utilities and infrastructure (including proper plumbing, etc.). Nevertheless, due to the housing shortage in the city, the owners of these alley houses were still able to charge rent, making the alley dwellings in Washington DC parallel to the tenement housing for the Irish in New York City.

Thus, emerges the dichotomous city: the MAIN city, a city of access and excess (the city of streets), and a HIDDEN city, a city of neglect and scarcity (the city of alleys). This reflects Constance McLaughlin Green’s use of the term “the Secret City” referring to the black community in her 1967 account of race relations in Washington DC.

By the 1920s and 1930s, public health and public safety concerns regarding the alleys arose; they were considered to be dirty, and a locus for crime and disease.

The 1912 Directory of Alleys, Washington DC, compiled under the direction the Chairman of Housing Committee Monday Evening Club, was titled “Blind Alleys of Washington DC, Seclusion breeding crime and disease to kill the alley inmates and infect the street residents”.


Woman in alley source: DC Public Library

“They are so widely distributed throughout the city that even the best residential section are not free from their evil influences”. (1912 Directory of Alleys, Washington DC, p.7)

The report stated there were “275 interior courts in the city containing 337 houses used for dwelling and approx. 16 000 persons.” The report also stated that the average for each alley was “12.2 houses and 58.1 persons […] Each alley-house has an average of 4.8 persons.”

The lack of attention from the city government kept these spaces in a state of neglect, however it is also important to note that poverty tends to be easily criminalized. Alley residents and residences were communities themselves, and functioned as other communities, in this particular case reflecting much of the folklore and customs from the rural origin of their residents. (Blochard James)

The sequence that followed the fate of alleys in the city was quite predictable:

– The 1892, new legislation prohibited new housing construction on alleys less than thirty feet wide, as well as alleys without basic utilities such as sewers, water mains, and lights.

– In 1906 The Board for the Condemnation of Insanitary Buildings in the District of Columbia- prohibited construction of all alley dwelling, and gave the authorization to “wipe, widen or straighten alleys and minor streets in the District of Columbia” under the petition of 50% of the owners a block or square requested it.

– By 1914 the First Lady, Ellen Wilson, led ‘grand tours’ of the alleys and actively sought passage of legislation to end alley dwelling.

– In the 1920s, with the automobile taking center stage and commuting becoming more of a possibility, white housing advocates argued for the elimination of alley dwellings and instead encouraged, as a better form of land use, business developments at the center of the city. (Gillete Howard) With housing reformers pushing for development and revitalization in the downtown, black alley dwellers struggled to fight displacement.

It is also around this time that many of the remaining alley residences were converted into garages.

newspaper clipping for DC alley survey.jpg

– In 1934, Congress supported the creation of the Alley Dwelling Authority (ADA). The ADA was given the task of evaluating homes and streets to determine whether or not they met proper living conditions; and more broadly speaking, the ADA was given the power to condemn alley homes.

Any alley documentation created by the ADA would be sent to legislation for approval, which included the oversight of individuals such as Eleanor Roosevelt (who was actually an advocate for allowing residents to remain/return to their alley homes). Some of the common reasons used to justify the renovation of an alley included: “excess of individuals in one home, too many African Americans in and around the area, or a fading exterior.” (Gillete Howard)

Following this process, the ADA demolished and rebuilt entire alleys with funding from the United States Housing Authority. However, the construction rendered alley dwellers whose houses were being fixed with no place to live and when the residents came back, their homes were unaffordable to the new improvements. (Wikipedia on ADA)

Moreover, the New Deal led to the growth of the government, which itself contributed to the housing shortage in the city. The lack of affordable housing and the strong urban revitalization efforts, which paralleled, elevated racial conflict in the city.

– In 1944, while suburban development spread farther and farther from the city, Congress passed the Alley Dwelling Act, “to provide for the discontinuance of the use as dwellings of the buildings situated in alleys in the District of Columbia.” No alley houses were to be inhabited after July 1, 1944, though much of the enforcement didn’t happen until 1955. (Gillete Howard)

The following couple of decades were hectic ones for DC; the riots in the 1960s led many of the wealthier urban dweller to flee the city for the suburbs (as many of these were white families, this was primarily termed as “white flight”), leaving Washington DC as a primarily black and poor city.

On 1973, Congress enacted the district of Columbia Home Rule Act, providing for an elected mayor and the 13-member Council. Though now autonomous, the Federal government kept an oversight on the District of Columbia. Funny enough, the “white flight” movement and the lack of autonomy for DC to directly review and revise its bills and regulations without depending on Congress for approval, kept the alleys, their spaces and their structures in a mummified state. That is, until last September… stay tuned!

I look forward to our next posts where posts we will discuss alley typologies as well as the present state of alleys and related changes in the city.

alley examples from survey.jpg

source: Images and diagrams from the 2014 Alley Survey, DC’s Office of Planning.


  • Borchert James, Alley Life in Washington: Family, Community, Religion, and Folklife in the City, 1850-1970 (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1980)
  • Gillette Howard, Jr., Between Justice and Beauty: Race, Planning, and the Failure of Urban Policy in Washington, D.C. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995).
  • 1912 Directory of Alleys, Washington DC, “Blind Alleys of Washington DC, Seclusion breeding crime and disease to kill the alley inmates and infect the street residents”
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alley_Dwelling_Authority 2/3

4 thoughts on “DC’s Hidden City:: Part 2- History

  1. This is an excellent article reflecting the same patterns that are creating today’s urban informal settlements: (large rate of urban migration due to macro political/economic forces, lack adequate housing options, lack of policy- leading to exploitation by land owners, association of poverty to crime and disease, interventions based on clearing ‘the crime and disease,’ technological advancements enabling more advantaged to abandon urban areas, concentrating the poor.) An effective, comparative way to explain the story of today’s slums.

    Thank you for this research!

  2. Pingback: DC’s Hidden City: Alley typologies | {FAVEL issues}

  3. Pingback: DC’s Hidden City: The vision for alleys (part I) | {FAVEL issues}

  4. Pingback: Mapping Disease: Tuberculosis in Chicago, 1906 | Mapping Urban Form and Society

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