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How Chicago’s alley system could be a creative space

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Alleys keep the city clean, but could they also be spaces for art studios and bike shops?

A brick building facing an alley with vines and overgrown bushes.
A brick alley in the Logan Square neighborhood.

Chicago has over 1,900 miles of alleys, and it’s been a fixture of the city’s landscape since the infrastructure was built in the 1800s.

As James Thompson drafted the city’s first plans in 1830, the alleyway was an essential element in the design, helping to dissect the 36-square-mile township plots laid out into even patterns. But, it hasn’t always been used in the same manner.

In 2015, WBEZ’s Curious City investigated the origins of the “alley capital of the U.S.” and how the utility roadways serve Chicago. In the 19th century, the alley system was used to manage the city’s horses and waste. Now, the space keeps our sidewalks and parkways clear by providing a place for dumpsters and parking spaces. But even in early incarnations, alleys developed into social and meeting spaces—an unlikely third space.

In the 1950s, a Bronzeville alley bordered by 49th, Champlain, 50th and St. Lawrence hosted weekly jazz DJ sessions, mural painting, and hang outs. It continued until the ’80s until then-mayor Jane Byrne shut down the party—evidence that without allowance outside utility alleys would remain shady places. The Smart Museum featured a collection of photographs from the long-running gathering in an exhibit.

In the book Rebel Garages, the creative uses for alleys and garages are celebrated, like art studios and bike shops. The book came after a project with the Chicago Architecture Foundation first exhibited as part of 50 Designers, 50 Ideas, 50 Wards. It’s available at the CAC’s bookstore or the Graham Foundation’s shop.

The authors, Ann Lui and Craig Reschke from Future Firm, propose 10 changes to city codes that would make it easier for small businesses, artists, and other residents to create communities and vibrant civic spaces in alleys.

These changes include legalizing expanded small business use, reducing parking requirements, and, most intriguingly, allowing for “rebel block” zoning overlays in areas where several adjacent homeowners have already transformed their alleyways. For Lui, making these changes is crucial to reflect the novel ways in which city space can be most effectively used today, distinguishing a city far different from the one that saw its alleyways constructed generations ago.

“We shouldn’t see the code as a static thing,” Ann Lui said. “It’s actually a document that should be designed and redesigned, both to reflect how people live, but also to construct the urban futures that we as a city want.”

Even in areas where there might not be obvious potential for transformation, Lui suggests there are still small ways for residents to reimagine their alleys.

For one, she recommends the Green Alley initiative, which aims to improve infrastructure by introducing grey water collection, LED lighting, and permeable pavement, significantly improving these ubiquitous space’s environmental impact.

This is a way to modernize what could be an outdated space. A small change that could make way for other creative possibilities, Lui believes.

“There are very few garages that couldn’t be used to some other interesting use,” Lui said. “It was actually many of the small and weird ones that you wouldn’t necessarily think are architecturally interesting, but they had been hacked in the most interesting ways to use for what they wanted.”