Originally created 12/24/06

Advocates work to preserve urban alley culture



Alleys have an image problem.

They are often portrayed as dark, dank places of ill-repute, but some historic preservationists in Augusta and lovers of urban culture believe the narrow spaces might actually have some hidden charm.

That's why a set of guidelines recently approved for the historic Olde Town neighborhood calls for protecting the mini-streets, narrow walkways and spaces often shared by rental tenants for parking.

"They serve a purpose, and that's why we want to preserve them," said George Patty, the executive director of the city Historic Preservation Board.

In addition to being practical, they are also becoming fashionable at a time when many cities are experiencing an urban revival.

"It is vintage stuff," said Larry Keating, a professor in the College of Architecture at Georgia Tech.

By serving as areas for parking and rear access to buildings and homes, alleys also free up the front of the property for another value favored by new urbanist design: the ability to interact with passers-by on the street, he said.

For Olde Town resident Sarah Croteau, 25, alleys have their good points and bad points. On one hand, she said, they give the area a metropolitan feel. But they also can be kind of "creepy," especially when unsavory characters show up in them.

"Alley cats are cool; bums aren't," Ms. Croteau said.

Sometimes the negative perceptions meet reality.

Trevor Maurer, 25, for example, said he had his car stolen and tires slashed one night after he left it parked in the alley beside his building on lower Broad Street.

"You walk out and you're on your guard, looking behind your back," he said.

Efforts to preserve alleys in Augusta's other historic neighborhoods have been both successes and failures.

Like many social issues in the city, the question fell along racial and economic lines.

In the affluent Summerville area, the alleys have been well-kept and are essential for parking and services such as garbage, Mr. Patty said.

But in the historic and predominantly black Bethlehem neighborhood, the narrow lanes were seen as dangerous and provided access to many houses, which had suffered from neglect, he said.

In fact, they were part of the basis for removing Bethlehem's local historic designation because they impeded the demolition of some of the deteriorated homes, Mr. Patty said.

The issue with most of the alleys in Olde Town is that many of them have already been overtaken by heating and air-conditioning units, fences, and in some cases have just been incorporated into people's yard, he said.

Mr. Patty said preservationists hope the new guidelines will help stop future encroachment on existing alleyways.

Reach Justin Boron at (706) 823-3215 or justin.boron@augustachronicle.com.