Madison Monday: My favorite alley

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The alley between Main St. and Second St. looking east

This morning, strolling about Madison in the 18 degree cold, I bumped into the owner of our local bookstore, Village Lights, coming out of the back of his building.  “So you’re an alley walker,” he said, roughly paraphrasing.  This morning, yes, but not as often as I’d like to be, I confess.  Alleys are one of the worlds great innovations and should be thoroughly enjoyed, whevever possible (and relatively safe).

What is an alley for?  You might think of them as streets designed for all the behind the scenes type things that we’d rather not take place on the public part of the street.  In the framework of Goffman, alleys are back stage to the front stage of Main St.  In Madison, they were originally where people’s carriage houses might have been.  They’re still used for stores and businesses to receive deliveries and send things out, though when trucks became increasingly larger, this became harder logistically speaking.  This is why in Madison, we get large semi trucks parked on Main St. making deliveries to our restaurants.

Looking west towards Eco-Massage

The new urbanists sing the praise of the alley.  They build them all over the place in their communities.  In today’s world, alleys can put cars where the new urbanists believe they should be, back stage rather than front stage.  New urbanists believe humans should be front stage, and specifically humans on foot.  New urbanists love garage and carriage house apartments, because they should allow for mixed income living; you own the nice big house on Main St. and then you rent your garage or carriage house apartment to someone who can’t afford your big house on Main St.  Alleys also contribute to a grid structure; if by some incredible miracle, there’s a massive traffic jam in Madison, you can in theory cut through the alleys.  People do drive through the alleys in Madison, probably in part because of our prolifration of one way streets.

The beautiful mural by Tiffany Black on the side of Shipley’s

Alleys also can obviously contain many other back stage behavoirs…crime, drunkenness, people making out.  Thankfully, we don’t get a whole lot of crime in our Madison alleys, or at least little that I’ve seen (I can’t attest to the making out, either).  As a pedestrian, walking the alleys reveals a side of your town or your city that you don’t usually see.  There’s something intimate about an alley, which is why Goffman would say it’s back stage.  So in celebration of all things alley, here is a photo tour of my current favorite in Madison, the one between Main St. and 2nd St., roughly between Jefferson St. and West.

Part of what I like about this alley is that if you stand in it and look west, it terminates with a view of my friends massage establishment, Eco-Massage.  Eco-Massage is a tiny little building painted a lovely shade of yellow, and so if you stand in the alley all the way down at Jefferson, the yellow of the building is what you see at the end.

A nice tangle of wires and birds

Other things you might see on this alley are the mural painted by my friend and Hanover College graduate, Tiffany Black.  The mural is painted on the side of Shipley’s, a local bar, and was commissioned to celebrate our bicentennial last year.  Tiffany worked long and hard raising the money necessary to complete this mural, and I only wish it were somewhere where more people could see it.  She also has a beautiful mosaic that is also somewhat hidden on the river walk, but if you’re cruising by Madison in a boat on the river, look for it!

I find strange things beautiful and compelling, or maybe they’re not strange.  For example, telephone poles.  Alleys are a good place to observe the contorted and convulted manifestations of telephone poles and power lines.  And the birds that like to hang out there.

My friend Jen told me about these beautiful stained glass windows in this alley.  It’s sometimes hard to match the back of the alley up to the building at the front, and I confess that I didn’t even try, so I’m not sure which building these windows belong to, but I love the idea of putting beauty in a place like this.  Why not?  What a lovely thing to stumble upon as you’re getting from one place to another.

 Looking east down this alley, you see the little tower that’s part of the building that currently houses Round About Madison, a great place to find out what’s happening in town and around.  This building looks like it was built by some obscure lodge.  And eventually as you walk down the alley, you will find yourself alongside the county jail, with it’s little slit windows high off the ground.  In the summer when I would walk through this alley, I could occasionally here people calling and I often smell their breakfast or lunch being prepared in the morning.  The county jail doesn’t hold folks for very long, but it’s odd to think about the people in there every time you walk by.

So, what’s great about alleys?  In some ways, they’re like little metaphors for life.  There’s beauty and weirdness and some sadness and tragedy.  Often garbage, but often nice people you bump into along the way.  They’re quieter than the street.  Also there are often cats, and you can’t beat that.  I think when you walk down an alley, it’s easier perhaps to become absorbed in the journey itself, rather than the destination, and that can’t be bad.



Looking east towards the Round About Madison building



The windows on the side of the county jail



Another tangle of wires with the courthouse cupola in the background



A door on the side of the Round About building



I don’t know what’s going on with the outside of this building, but it looks cool



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