Seattle Alley

Capitol Hill's Secret Alley


On Capitol Hill, our alleys are linear. Stick straight, their linear nature defined by the walls and buildings that crisply define their edges. Though such definition is the typical case it is by no means the only one, as some alley- edges are defined not by a building or wall but only by a change in pavement type or by a shift from pavement to lawn. In such cases where there is no strict spatial boundary (i.e. wall or garage), the alley has an opportunity to usurp its linear heritage, and borrow from an adjacent space. Such expansion and contraction of the alley's typical spatial composition adds significantly to one's alley experience, adding yet another fruitful reason for exploration.



For apartment buildings, the transition space from alley to building often includes parking for vehicles, a totally reasonable use of such a space.  At the non-alley side of the parking, one finds the apartment building which terminates this most basic of alley-space borrowing. The single-family residential portions of the Hill, on the other hand, can provide a more significant opportunity for the borrowing of space, as the often smaller-footprint single family house takes up less space than a mufti-family building. Such residences often have garages in their back yard. While such out buildings and walls often limit the extension of alley-space, they also frame the extension of space from the alley into an otherwise private realm.



A hybrid of the two above examples can be seen below. More urban in nature, this alley-extension has an unusual formality to it, attributable to the uniformity in the defining buildings' materials and their symmetrical lay-out. Though the fence makes it clear that the courtyard is private and not to be shared, its presence contributes to the spatial collage of the alley, lending it a more public ambiance.



Appearing to be carved out from the building, the porch/corridor combination/extension pictured below presents a rare, subtractive typology to the menu. In fact, the porch extension is wholly contained by the building within which it resides, allowing the alley to retain its crisp definition.  The spatial ambiguity of this intriguing borrowing is enhanced by the narrowness of alley itself.



In isolation, the individual variations of each alleys spatial characteristics is perhaps only mildly interesting. Taken as an ensemble and concentrated in one place, however, such variety gives unexpected richness to the alley-experience.  Fortunately for us, we have just such an alley on the Hill, which I call Capitol Hill's secret alley. Why secret? It was at least to me.  I have lived only two blocks from it for almost nine years and I just discovered it. Perhaps the more intrepid of us had already taken the plunge, but to me it was all a surprise, and all great fun.



Above, is the view of the alley that I had seen perhaps hundreds of times, and prior to this series, never felt the urge to delve into. From all appearances, it seems to be a straight connector from Roy street (between 19th and 20th Avenues), to Mercer Street. Very narrow, unpaved, not exactly inviting, and hardly likely to have much of interest. But this was a day for exploration, so I thought, why not?


Why not indeed! This is the view, mid-alley, looking back to Roy. What a surprise! Talk about  borrowing space -- this alley leads into quite a variety spaces. Gardens, porches, and stoops -- wow. And so urban. In the gritty, well worn way that adds character to a city. Look at that foot path, what a great chronicler of use. And unique to this alley, no cars. An added bonus, for it allows portions of the alley to be extra narrow.


While hardly a piazza, the central space of this alley has a wonderful sense of enclosure that merits a visit. Similar to the examples above, the alley extensions here are private property, but their enclosing walls conversely make it feel more public (even though it clearly is not). In warmer months, with leaves on the trees and vegetables in the gardens, the experience must be even more satisfying. With a bit of polish (not too much, though) the above space would make a fabulous summer time terrace for dining or drinks, providing a nice addition to the Monsoon and Kingfish ensemble, one half a block over.  Or, how about letting a warm summer day slip away, perched on the second floor balcony of the apartment building in the previous photo?



Looking north from Mercer, towards Roy, the southern portion of the alley has an even greater urban patina to it. The roughness of the masonry walls, the slight bend in the path, the bare utility of the steps. To the right one can see the tree and corner of the building pictured above, giving the slightest hint of the treasure that lies beyond, in Capitol Hill’s secret alley.


Capitol Hill’s Alley Landscapes, Planned or Otherwise

Alleys have a certain alluring, intimate quality to them, owing to their lesser width and traffic as well as their less intentional nature. Typically associated with the denser, more urban parts of a city, Seattle has an extensive network of alleys not only in its downtown but also in many of its residential neighborhoods, including Capitol Hill. Close-by Portland, by comparison, has only one sizable neighborhood with alleys, Ladd's Addition. Here on Capitol Hill, we not only have alleys, but alleys forming a network that is extensive and diverse, presenting fertile ground for the urban explorer.  In fact, the network is so diverse that today's is the first of several posts on the topic -- and all on alleys in only one corner of the Hill: east of 15th, west of 22nd, north of Thomas, and south of Galer.

First and foremost, alleys are about service, and are the home of utility poles, recycling bins, garages, and other sundries that allow us to not only efficiently run our lives but to do so in a manner that keeps streets presentable and less cluttered. This prescribed, service role occurs within a variety of landscapes, ranging from compacted gravel roads -- more akin to a country lane than an urban way -- to alley landscapes that are meticulously cared for and brick-paved. While any given street landscape may possess such variety, the alley landscapes depicted here possess it within a more compact range -- and sometimes only within a single block -- oftentimes belying the apparent uniformity presented by the associated street frontages.

Some alley landscapes differ little from street landscapes: a manicured lawn, fence for privacy, a flight of steps; rubbish bins and vehicles tucked within a garage and out of view. Other alley landscapes lack any apparent order, with life’s detritus arrayed in full view.When structures are present, they are may be reflections of those of their street-counterpart, being made of the same materials and details, and of similar proportion and form. Oftentimes, such alley-structures occur within lush landscapes one expects of the best cared for gardens, enveloping the alley. In such instances, the building-landscape combination creates a spatial intimacy unrivaled on Capitol Hill.


In addition to providing functional space on the alley, Capitol Hill’s alleys provide functional space above the alley, as witnessed by the many pruned trees, which allow for utility lines to pass unimpeded. Rough in execution and unsatisfactory in appearance, if there were no alleys to host utility lines, our robust, heatlhy, and prevalent street trees would be shorter and less healthy, yielding to the pruners of utility providers.

Landscape, however, is not always what yields. Left unchecked, many of the elements within the alley yield to landscape, their useful life expired. Once amenities to homeowners, such artifacts provide a narrative to the way we conducted our everyday lives. Even without the moss and decaying concrete, built objects in the alley inherently have a landscape quality to them; or, a primacy and unassuming beauty that blurs the distinction between natural and constructed. Much as one may consider a rural landscape scenic for its teetering barns, coops, and sagging fences, the evolution of built alley into landscape furthers romantic sentiments.

This reclaiming of the built by the landscape is not limited to smaller utilitarian objects. Walls, stairs, and even entire buildings can be seen in various phases of reclamation. Without the societal scrutiny that streets receive, and even in this affluent section of Capitol Hill, such reclamation is common and not unexpected within the alley environment.

Once the landscape has taken hold, constant attention is warranted to fend off its tireless advances. Attention that a homeowner typically exercises -- with greater societal relevance and effectiveness -- on the street side. This difference in stewardship echoes the dichotomy between servant and served, between alley and street, and between back and front.

Being screened from the public’s full scrutiny has lead to another interesting and wholly unexpected characteristic -- one of experimentation in landscape and building -- where one finds newer constructs of a totally differing characteristic than expected, and the subject of the next post.