I’m sitting in the office of Todd Vogel, director of the International Sustainability Institute in Seattle, as he walks behind his desk and pulls something out of a drawer. He comes back to where I’m sitting and lays the object on the table between us. It’s small and brass, with some scotch tape wrapped around one end. I have no idea what I’m holding in my hand until Vogel cheerily chimes in:
“It’s a crack pipe.”
The pipe is a memento from the alley behind the office. Vogel found it not long after he moved into the space off the alley in 2008.
It soon became apparent that the alley was not a great place to be: Further down the way was a cardboard box used as a makeshift toilet. Once, he saw a pool of blood and the apparent weapon, a pointy umbrella; later he learned one of the neighbors had been keeping a log of all the police reports that were made about the space.
Vogel asked an architect friend what he should do. “She said the answer was simple: All I needed to do was put people in it [the alley],” said Vogel.
So Vogel began staging events like music performances and art shows. The alley slowly began to change from a place where crime happened to a place pedestrians walked through. In June, the ISI won an innovation award for the Alley Network Project from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“Just the idea of using an alley for something other than garbage collection turns people’s heads” said Liz Stenning, public realm director for the Alliance of Pioneer Square, a nonprofit that has helped build the alley project. “But they’re not just utilitarian in function, they can be places for people to meet neighbors and be together.”
Alleyways have long posed a safety threat in Seattle. In April, the city decided that to curb the crime that occurred on these streets, it would be easier to shut them down, using them only for garbage pickup and restricting them from public use. Some of the city's most problematic alleys remain blocked today. Similar strategies have been used in Baltimore and Napa Valley.
Having the alley closed down was not a viable solution to Vogel. Twenty-seven percent of spaces open to the public are “right of way,” meaning that cars drive on nearly a third of the public space open to everyday people. To close the alleys would be to detract even further from the spaces available for the community to gather in.
Vogel started with a small poetry reading. Sixty people showed up. It was the first in a series of events that included music performances, readings, cat adoptions, circus acts, and doggy costume parties. A few neighbors had liked the idea and helped orchestrate the first events. Soon, nearby business owners began to contribute as well. Windows that were previously boarded up were now open, a cinder block wall that blocked a doorway was removed, and neighbors put in planters and contributed to the upkeep.
“If you treat it as a place where nobody goes, then you’re inviting illicit activity and you’re inviting people not to respect it” said Vogel, who noted seeing changes in his “backyard.” “The healthy activity meant that the unhealthy activity was self-policing.”
They decided to rename the street Nord Alley.
In the summer of 2010, there was a demand to screen the World Cup games. Using the back of a U-Haul and a projector to create a lightbox, the daytime showings packed in more than 200 people into the small, narrow road to cheer on their favorite soccer teams.
Other building tenants who wanted to transform their alleyways began to take notice and implement a similar program. The city of Seattle responded by allowing art to be permanently installed on the walls so that people would have a reason to walk the alley even if there was no event. The city has also worked with Vogel and ISI to redesign and repave the roads, improving accessibility while keeping the historic elements intact.
“It’s a theoretical thing to say, ‘put people in an alley and watch it grow.’ It’s something completely different to actually see it happen,” said Vogel.
The idea has spread to six alleys in Seattle and has brought city planners from places like Chicago who want to observe how the residents had turned the alleys around.
Stenning and the Alliance hope to bring local business owners into the effort by getting them to open up their back doors and create seating outside. They recently helped refurbish nearby Occidental Square with 60 bright green tables, a public piano, and foosball tables.
Before, the square resembled an empty lot more than a place for people to meet. There was nowhere to sit and most of the businesses on the block hadn’t made use of the area.
William Broadley, who goes by Bill, is a retiree who spends his nights in a nearby shelter and his days in the park. He said the square was once unused, but since the remodeling it fills up everyday.
“It's great,” he said of the new changes.“You should see it during a Sounders [soccer] game. The whole place gets packed and everyone is talking to each other.”