Exploring our alleys,history


By Vivian Bacon uses the alleys in Old Town as a pedestrian thoroughfare as she takes a short cut to her job at the Decorium on King Street, similar to the way people used the alleys more than 200 years ago. I always cut down here, its nice and quiet, she said, as she walks on the cobblestones that still make up the road bed in Swifts Alley off South Fairfax Street.

A business expansion in the 200 block of King Street. was recently rejected this past week by the City Council, partially because it may infringe on the historic nature of Swifts Alley. Cases like that spawn the question who owns the alleys?

Its not clear who owns what, said Tom Hullfish, the chairman of the Board of Architecture Review. In the original city documents from 1749, no provision was made in the plan for connecting the alleys so citizens arranged them to suit their needs, according to architectural documents cited in an alleys article in The Antiques Journal, April 1958, by Bertha H. Dougherty. There are still some gray areas in the rulings concerning the alleys, said Hullfish. In cases where there are two homeowners, neither property owner can deny the other the use of the alley, said Hullfish.

Linda Kelsey knows about the arguments and is a veteran of the alley wars, at her previous residence at St. Asaph Street and Pitt Street. Where I used to live, there were disputes, she said. Although she moved to another house in Old Town, she cant get away from the alleys. I rent this space, its great to have parking, she said of her assigned spot on Thompsons Alley that runs from the 200 block of North Fairfax Street to Union Street.

The alley behind Vicki Vasquess house on South Pitt Street is used as parking for the bordering homes. It flooded a few years ago, and ruined several cars so the city rebuilt the alley and drainage sewers. Its just the way the draining went. The city had to do major repair from the river up, she said.

In Thompsons Alley in the 200 block of North Lee Street, the parking spots are reserved, and signs are posted with the renters names. Don Annett has a condo that borders the alley and a parking spot. Theres a value to it, he said.

Alley history
Back in the day, the alleys throughout Old Town served a different purpose, housing carriages instead of cars. Some of the better known alleys included Ramsey Alley, Market Alley, Gazette Alley, Sharpshin Alley, and Black Dog Alley, near Union and Prince Streets.

Sharpshin Alley surrounded Market Square and got its name from pieces of silver coins that were cut when making a purchase at the market. The sharp pieces dug through the pants pockets and many ended up in the alley. Sharpshin Alley was also called Love Alley at one time after a certain romantic affair associated with the alley. Printers Alley was named for two newspapers, the Virginia Journal and the Alexandria Advertizer, and Wales Alley was named for Andrew Wales in 1771.

An alley from St. Asaph Street to South Pitt was surveyed by George Washington himself, and is now a bricked foot path, according to the article. In official city plans, all the alleys were supposed to be nine feet wide.

Ramsey Alley behind several restaurants in the 100 block of North Fairfax Street, was the only alley owned by the city in 1751, and also known as Fayette Alley after French General Lafayette. There once was a cow named Old Judy that roamed in that alley, named after a certain bow-legged old lady of the neighborhood, the story went. As legend has it, all the cobblestones were laid in the alleys by Hessian mercenary soldiers who stayed in the country after the Revolutionary War. An article written on April 29, 1795, warned of the health hazards in the alleys from the great quality of stagnant water and other noxious matters, it stated, naming the Wales, Rutters and Pattens Alleys, although the names may have changed since.

City archeologist Pam Cressey, said [use of] the alleys were a way of communicating for slaves too, and the walls property owners built was meant to restrict the slaves. A lot of their socializing was done in the alleys or courtyards, she said. The alleys are sort of forgotten, she said.

Mayor William Euille introduced the idea to name all the alleys so emergency vehicles would be able to respond to calls, but his idea was put on the back shelf, due to a lack of funding. Alleys are a valuable asset in the city, the mayor said.