Midtown Alleys: Their Long, Functional, Hard-to-Research History

With Peter Pace and Aaron Klimek

The alley.

The term bring images to mind of darkness and shadows, the unknown between streets, lone figures walking in silhouette, secret encounters or rats scurrying around for food. A place for a smoke break from a restaurant shift, for a swig of whiskey out of a paper bag, or trench coats and fedoras and a “Psst, hey buddy, check out these watches.”

(feature image; stock photo of a noir-ish city alley)

Those noir-ish images befit the downtown alley; however neighborhood alleys, they are of a slightly different ilk.

Lined with weeds and trash cans, the alleys in Midtown, Memphis are characterized by garage doors or back houses, narrow thoroughfares of broken concrete best traversed carefully on foot. Some are neatly kept, but usually only in isolated stretches. Some are passable by small trucks or even the occasional garbage truck. Others are impassable by car and are treacherous for the walker. Who owns the alleys and their right-of-ways is yet one more complexity that marks our Midtown alleys.

They have a long, functional history: sometimes romantic, once segregationist. And, a history that is difficult to research.

Documentation on our downtown alleys is sparse and incomplete. “Alleys have a life of their own,” Joe Lowry once said (for a 2006 article in Memphis Downtowner for Devin Greaney). “Names change, alleys close, and sometimes they disappear. When I first started researching, I got very frustrated.” In Midtown, like most neighborhoods across the country, the alleys are almost characterless – nameless divides between blocks.

1938 historic aerial. Shelby County Register of Deeds.

Alley History

The lack of available information is not unique to Memphis. The book The Alleys and Back Buildings of Galveston puts it plainly that, “Alleys and back buildings have been largely overlooked in studies of the American urban environment.” However the book – “An Architectural and Social History” – lays the claim that these byways, buildings and their inhabitants “have had a profound visual, physical, and social impact on the history and development of Galveston.”

In a story for the “byDesign” blog, Canin Associates wrote that “In the 19th century, American cities used alleys to hide the more utilitarian, less attractive functions of urban life including service and servant access, barns for horses and carriages, and even small shops and areas for children to play.”

Alleys had important social implications. It is worth recalling that here in Midtown, Central Garden’s alleys and back houses were designed to meet the needs of some of Memphis’s most iconic personalities and prominent citizens, like E. H. “Boss” Crump, infamous film censor chief Lloyd T. Binford, Commercial Appeal editor C.P.J. Mooney, families like the Norfleets or the Vintons, and Memphis Mayors Edmund Orgill and Walter Chandler.

During the postbellum, Jim Crow Era in middle- and upper-class neighborhoods, alleys and back houses were important tools in keeping in place the primary social boundary of the day: segregation.

A 2017 Demographic Research study, “Racial segregation in postbellum Southern cities,” points out the relevance of the alley configuration. “All available evidence,” it says, “suggests that there were strong social boundaries between alleys and perimeter streets: alleys were not surveilled by authorities, non-residents were afraid to enter them, and they were considered to be appropriate for blacks but not for ‘decent white people.’ It is this social boundary that turns the short distance between the alley and its connected street into a deep divide. A parallel argument can be made for other spatial scales. Whatever else matters about segregation, a key element is how spatial patterns reflect social boundaries.”

Segregated though it was, the history of our Midtown alleys and back houses reflects a very traditional, southern culture that many look back on with some fondness. Barbara Viser, in her book Central Gardens – Stories of a Neighborhood, described the history this way:

Most families had servants, many of whom lived in quarters built behind the family homes. They had their own culture and social hierarchy loosely based on that of the families that employed them… Horsedrawn wagons were still common then (in the 1920s and ‘30s), and would deliver groceries and coal through the alleys. Most people had servants living in the servants’ quarters in the backyard, which was usually inhabited as well by chickens and even cows…  Servants often stayed with their families many years. (Bond) Dashiell said that their cook lived in the servants’ quarters at his family’s home for over thirty years. Polly Cooper, who lived at 1436 Carr Avenue with her parents in the 1930s, remembered that the servants used the alleys to walk to (street) car lines and as a thoroughfare for visiting back and forth with each other. “In the summer when the windows were open, you could hear them talking and singing,” Cooper said. 

The servants, nannies and nurses of the day would use the alleys to visit friends who worked in other homes in the neighborhood, taking with them the children they were caring for. Long-time Central Gardens resident Frank Byrd, reflecting on those bygone days for Stories of a Neighborhood remembers “spending hours sitting on the curb talking with an old black man named Dallas who taught him to whittle.”

It was a different era in Midtown and Central Gardens, the years when the trolleys ran down avenues like Peabody and Central, which were themselves barely paved, when most neighborhood streets were still dirt or gravel roads, when many properties were not yet fenced in, and when alleys were little more than public right-of-way walking paths behind houses.

Our Alleys Today

Today some of our Midtown alleys have unfortunately become not much more than a thoroughfare for trash pickup. They are sometimes poorly lit, in some places they are overgrown, and they are not always adequately patrolled.

Who actually owns the specific alley right-of-ways – city or home-owner – is also sometimes at issue.

Central Gardens subdivision plat with alley.
Central Gardens subdivision plats with alley. Shelby County Tax Assessor.

The issue of ownership is dependent on the original platting (pronounced platt-ing). Many of our Midtown subdivisions were platted to include right of passage for alley usage, as in the photo above. Alleys like the one pictured are owned by the city, much like ownership of city streets. Often these alleys – harkening back to 1900-1920s era carriages and vehicular traffic – are not more than 15 feet in width, roughly the width of a lane and a half of a typical street. Weeds, trash cans, debris, etc., reduces the alley width even farther. And in some alleys, back buildings over the years have been built – with or without zoning approval – directly to the edge of a property lot line or a few feet into the alley right-of-way, resulting in even narrower alley passages in various places.

Subdivision plat between Union and Eastmoreland, no alley. Shelby County Tax Assessor.

Other subdivisions abut commercial properties, such as those pictured above. In the example, the residential plats running west-east appear to stop at an alley-way that backs the commercial structures along Union Avenue. According to most city plats, the alley – if this were an alley – would be public right-of-way property, and city owned.

However a second look reveals that along this particular subdivision, the commercial structures were built a few feet north of their property lines, providing space to the rear of the properties for back door usage, garbage collection, etc. In addition, the residential property lines along this same stretch meet the commercial property line somewhere in the median area. It may feel like an alley, but this is not a traditional city-owned alley. In this instance, the median area has been referred to as a “service area.”

Why is this important?

Recently a few neighbors along Eastmoreland had a brewing dispute over a new commercial development being built on the corner of Union and Rozelle. According to the plan that was approved, a wall and landscaping being built along the lot line of the new commercial development would have blocked the entrance to a back gate that provided the only vehicular ingress into one of the homes that backed not an alley, but the service area median between the commercial and residential properties.

Midtown Memphis alley at Rozelle and Union
View northwest at Rozelle near Union Ave, the “service area” behind the property where a commercial structure, parking lot and landscaping will be built. Google street-view image.
Rough sketch illustrating how a property line bisects a “service area” and ends up creating what feels like an alley.

This was a problem, as the landscaping and wall being built would have permanently blocked any maintenance or emergency vehicles into said property.

Thankfully, a solution was devised between the residential property owners and the commercial developers, eliminating a portion of the proposed wall and landscaping so as to retain the egress and ingress from Rozelle into the back gate of the residential property.

Alleys Back to the Forefront

In recent years the Central Gardens Neighborhood Association has redoubled its efforts to address long-needed repairs on neighborhood sidewalks. And this year, alley improvements have been added to the mix.

According to area maps, there are 19 alleys in Central Gardens. Since good portions of the alleys are considered public right-of-ways and are in essence city-owned, the City of Memphis makes every attempt to cut down and trim vegetation twice a year in the spring and the fall. Also, the City will fill potholes in paved stretches of the alleys, and are typically vigilant about repairing potholes caused by garbage trucks.

Other alley maintenance is the obligation of the property owner whose fencing and/or back buildings abut an alley, and with that Central Gardens board member Peter Pace and area committee member Aaron Klimek are leading a study of neighborhood alleys to determine where improvements need to be made for safe passage, for the additional cutting back of alley vegetation, and for improvements in alley lighting. Lighting is at the top of the list for crime prevention, and already the group has determined how and where lighting may improve safety and act as a crime deterrent.

Mr. Pace’s group is using a scoring system devised by Peter to grade the conditions of any given alley. In addition, the group has noticed that some area alleys lack power poles, which will certainly factor into alley lighting needs and security concerns.

Central Gardens Alley Group grades an alley
Central Gardens Alley Group grades an alley. Peter Pace.

The group’s work requires much involvement from neighbors. And since alley maintenance is sometimes left to homeowners’ back burners for months on end, the group wondered how to get homeowners motivated to maintain their part of the alley.

One decision was to target one alley and its homeowners to see what kinds of motivations had any effect. In that spirit, they have begun exploring ways to raise awareness and enthusiasm over the life of our Midtown alleys (this article, at their suggestion, being one of the ways).

Some of the ideas that have been floated around have included the concepts of an “alley fair,” which would be modeled after a street fair, or an “alley crawl,” modeled after the pub crawls of yore. A combination of the two could also be explored. Another idea has been to include parts of alleys in the walks during the annual neighborhood Home & Garden Tour. Either one or all of these ideas would allow house owners to share their favorite dishes or beverages, or craft makers to display or sell their wares, bringing life back into our residential alleys.

It would also allow children to explore the alleys just as their neighborhood predecessors did, not too long ago, when from the back houses and back alleys they accompanied their parents’ servants, visiting house after friendly house. Who knows, maybe one of them can learn to whittle.


A version of this article appears in this month’s Central Garden’s newsletter.

Mark Fleischer is the founder and executive director of StoryBoard Memphis. He was a career consultant and communications specialist in the payroll industry until moving from southern California to Memphis in late 2015. The Bluff City gave him a new start in the second half of his career, gifting him the opportunity to return to his childhood fascinations with cities and his college passions in writing, theater, film, and storytelling.

One Reply to “Midtown Alleys: Their Long, Functional, Hard-to-Research History”

  1. Thank you very much for this insightful piece. I wish to learn even more about these back alley streets and how to upgrade them.

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