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Alleyway Life in the Capital

This blog post is just a small snapshot into my Historic Alleyways tour, the last of the first four Off the Mall Tours that I developed. The idea came from a friend, and once they suggested it, it just seemed obvious that the alleyways would be a phenomenal subject for a walking tour. They are a key feature of historic DC, and they played an enormous role in its development as the "Chocolate City." They were places where escaped slaves could arrive and thrive, or at least survive. It being Black History Month, I want this story to get its due. So allow me to give you a teaser.

The alleyways were an original feature of city planning and became a necessity as the city expanded, to allow for trash collection, deliveries, and other services. They varied in configuration, but most often had I-shaped or H-shaped forms that stretched 30-feet wide at the center of the square and were accessed from the public streets by narrower 15-foot alleys. This created a “blind” alley, which meant that most of the alleyways were in fact hidden away from someone casually walking down the main street of the block. This was a key aspect to layout that led to their role as a safe haven. Here is a map of Blagden Alley, which is where the tour starts, and you can see the "H" created by the alleys:

Diagram from James Borchert's Book "Alley Life in Washington"

Alleyway DWELLINGS have been around almost as long as the alleyways themselves. A survey of alley dwellings in the 1880s put the total count at 1,249 at their height. The city has had a perpetual housing problem, and the dwellings were intended to be cheap housing for day laborers. Most of them were wood shanties, but some were built as sturdier brick buildings. It completely depended on the developer and the landlord.

So who lived in these Alleyway Dwellings? In the earlier days of the city, the racial makeup of alleyway inhabitants was about 60% white to 40% black. That changed after DC declared itself a slavery-free city in 1850, and thousands of slaves fled the south and headed north. In need of jobs, they elected to stay as close to the city center as possible. For many, the most affordable place to live was in one of the dwellings in the alleyways. Some already had family living in dwellings, and so they moved in with them. This migration continued throughout and after the Civil War. By the 1880s, inhabitants of the alleyways were 93% black. The city population was overall 34% black so you see the disparity in alleyway vs. the “street-facing” population.

Life in the alleyways depended heavily on kinship ties. Extended family units were common, after all the more people living there the more they could contribute to the household. Historians of alleyway life describes how it wasn’t uncommon to find a few families that had some sort of a tie by blood, marriage, or some other unspoken agreement, living in the same dwelling, or a couple of neighboring dwellings. What’s interesting is that women in particular were observed to run much of what was going on in the day-to-day in the alleyways, watching children, washing clothes, keeping an eye out for any unsavory characters or police who may threatened to disturb the peace they had found there. Alleyway life in fact revolved around the lives of women, and was largely matriarchal.

How do we know how important the role of women was in the alleyways? Charles Weller, a white civil servant during the Teddy Roosevelt Administration, lived in Blagden Alley for a month to conduct a study of alleyway life. He describes his landlady, Laura O’Keefe (not her real name, he changed them to protect IDs), as an example of your typical alleyway head of household. She was a laundress, which was one of the few occupations available to alleyway women, and her husband Henry was a day laborer. Her son, daughter and her daughter’s husband all lived with them. When anyone came by their dwelling to talk about goings on or something that concerned the community, they talked to Laura. According to Charles she kept a clean and tidy home, which ran contrary to most peoples’ assumptions (including his own) at the time, which was that Alleyway life was decrepit and dirty. Another work that was written later and with a more modern sensibility, "Alleyway Life in Washington," by James Borchert, confirms this dynamic of women being in charge.

Everyday life in the alleys was communal, which helped alleviate some of the difficulties. They were tight knit social structures. Alley dwellers didn’t live that far away from each other, because the alleyways just weren’t that wide. The evenings was really when everything came alive. In another account by Charles, he describes a night in which a quartet of gentlemen played music and sang, and people danced into the night. Folks would gather around, relax on chairs, play dice, share news, and talk about where there was work to be found. In fact, the news within the alleyways travelled faster than the papers.

This isn’t to say life in the alleyways was idyllic. Far from it. Disease was a problem, tuberculosis in particular. It was exceedingly difficult to escape the alleyway life, due to enormous prejudice against alleyway dwellers, both because of the color of the skin but also their social class. Alley Children didn’t often finish school because teachers didn’t want to teach them alongside other children. These were the barriers that kept most families living in alleyways stuck there for generations, until legislation was passed that condemned most of the dwellings and forced their inhabitants to move.

These days, alleyways like Blagden Alley are the home to beautiful murals and chic restaurants. How did they get to that point, you may wonder. Want to hear more about this story? The next Historic Alleyways tour is this Sunday, February 28th, and it’s the last day of my Black History Month promo: 10% off the ticket price with code BHM2021. Can’t make it this weekend or hesitant about in walking around in the cold? No problem! The tours will still be held every other Sunday from 2-4pm. Go to to check the schedule, and let me share this story with you!

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