The District’s Alleyways

“People tend to think in terms of snapshots. They think of an alley as being a certain way in the 1800s and 1900s, but it’s really a video and it’s been alive, living, evolving and changing.”

– Dr. David Salter

Neighborhoods evolve, new buildings go up, old buildings are given new life. People stay, others come and go. Washington, DC, is undoubtedly a place of change. But, if you look closely enough, there are constants. One constant that caught the attention of longtime DC resident, Dr. David Salter, is the district’s alleyways. 

Dr. Salter (Dave) can only be described as a renaissance man – a cardiac surgeon, teacher, preservationist, historian, and alleyway-dweller. He lives in Naylor Court, one of the revitalized historical alleyways in the district, where he owns a refurbished stable house (trust us, it’s as cool as it sounds). In talking with him it’s clear that his alleyway address is far more than just a place, it’s a passion and a unique type of community-living that he loves to call home. His vast knowledge of alley history and revitalization gives us a glimpse into DC’s complex relationship with alleyways. A history that reveals racial and class disparities, as well as vibrancy and deeply rooted community-living.

The spaces running between and behind buildings and bustling streets, have always provided the district form and function. Alleyways were not the result of a well-designed dream city, they reflected the necessity of essential services – shoe repair, blacksmith, bicycle repair, bakery – and cheap and available housing for a booming population at the turn of the century.  

Photography by Chesley McCarty
Describe what Washington, DC’s alleyways were like in the late-1800’s/early 1900’s.

There is a tendency to romanticize alley life in the past. It was raw and rough. People got along out of necessity for protection. There was synergy of businesses such as the blacksmith and the stables. Victorian row homes were often interconnected with each other through their basements so that they could share cooks. The alleys were essentially slums and not happy places. Disease was rampant which was one motivating factor for periodic efforts to eliminate the alley properties. One lived there because there were no other options. 

Photography by Chesley McCarty
Can you speak to the dichotomy of the alleyway living of the past with today’s alleyway living? 

With the elimination of all of the negative elements that plagued alleys for so many years there has been an increasing recognition of the uniqueness of alleys as havens away from the street side of life. The movement toward alley preservation and development is a national one and long overdue.

Today, alleys offer something that is out of the ordinary with so much of the city architecture being rather homogenous with rows of nearly identical Victorian or federal architecture. The US has been slow to recognize the value of the alleys as a place to escape from the outside bustle of modern life. 

Photography by Chesley McCarty
What’s one fact you wish all DC residents knew about alleyway living?

The DC alleys were alive and vibrant communities that housed stables and small shops such as bicycle repair shops, meeting the needs of the community in different ways in different eras. Preserving them preserves the story of the path that Washington took after the Civil War to grow and evolve into today’s patchwork of properties. If one understands the city’s alleys, one understands the history of the city and the role that alleys played as backbones of neighborhoods. There are also powerful sociological lessons that are still being learned.

Photography by Chesley McCarty
In your life, where have you lived that you felt most connected with your neighbors? What made that place special?

Naylor Court – Blagden Alley – with its tight connection of one building to the other and the low traffic has a very old fashioned sense of community. One stops to chat, not caught up with the pace of the city elsewhere.

At the end of the 19th Century and in the early 20th Century, DC alleys were havens for children to play. Mothers would watch from second story windows. Today with an increase in children in the Naylor Court neighborhood, once again there are many hours of play time.

“Designing a dream city is easy; rebuilding a living one takes imagination.” 

– Jane Jacobs, Vital Little Plans

Photography by Chesley McCarty
Want to learn more?

Capitol Hill Restoration Society: Preservation Cafe: Alley Buildings of Capitol Hill

HillRag: History: Capitol Hill Alley Dwellings

N & M House Detectives: A History of Capitol Hill Alleys

UrbanTurf: Where Have All the Alleys Gone?

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