Back in the summer of 2007, which seems forever ago, I was fond of walking the alleys in east Urbana, which is also where I’ve lived, with my family, for almost 10 years.
These aren’t the streetscaped alleys of downtown Urbana, the ones that have been paved and named and placemade with wrought iron archways and signage. Some are used traditionally – for deliveries to businesses. Others are blocked to vehicular traffic entirely and are used instead as seating areas, dining areas, etc. The alley between the Courier Café and Pizza M/Flying Machine Coffee boasts a huge mural painted by a local artist. Some walls have been tagged, others graffiti’d with stencil art. Basically, they’re public spaces providing shortcuts, a place to take a smoke break, and general respite in a small downtown area.
The alleys of east Urbana are un- or under-paved – they’re quaint, mostly-forgotten leftovers from the last century. Some are still used as thruways for cars. Others are choked with weeds and come to complete, unannounced dead ends. Back in 2007, the alleys in east Urbana were awesome for a slightly nosy person like me – here was this fascinating array of brief avenues letting me see what was behind the houses and small apartment buildings! Yeah, yards and gardens and garages, obviously, but I could also check out, up close, the kept spaces, the bits of earth between the alley and the garage that were planted with flowers like hollyhocks and sunflowers, trees providing shade and a natural archway, the occasional chicken coop. I took lots of photos.
Over the long weekend, I went back to the alleys for the first time in 7 years. I started off a few blocks from my house and ran into a gentleman mowing the part of the alley that was directly behind his house, a cute little bungalow with a well-kept backyard. He shut off his mower and we started to chat. He wasted no time in telling me that the neighborhood (for him, his neighborhood comprised a couple blocks) was “going down” and had been for over two decades. He talked about a couple of drug houses that had been busted recently and remained vacant, how neighbors weren’t keeping up their properties, that people didn’t want to live in east Urbana anymore. I asked him where people were going, if they were moving. No, he said, people who had lived for decades in the neighborhood were passing away and the homes were then bought and rented out by landlords. He told me that people making what he considered a “good income” were choosing to buy homes elsewhere. I was curious as to how he defined a good income, so I asked. His answer: Household income of 50K a year. This was interesting to me, as buying a home in many other neighborhoods in Urbana would likely require a household income of at least twice that, not to mention that east Urbana, in my circle, is seen as a desirable place to live – affordable, diverse, and neighborly. He went on to tell me that people in the neighborhood have chickens, which he didn’t understand. “If you want to live in the country, live in the country,” he said. Ah, then. I told him I had to be on my way, shook his hand, and thanked him for his time. His mower roared to life behind me as I headed down the alley.
I was a bit deflated after this encounter, and what I saw in the alleys as I walked through several neighborhoods seemed to prove Alley Mowing Guy correct. Many of the gardens that had existed 7 years ago were gone. Several fruit trees had been cut down. There were no grapevines lining back chain link fences. Few flowers had been planted on purpose, though there were still perennials like daylilies and prairie sunflowers along some fences. There were no chicken coops. A dead, bloated animal lay in the middle of one alley, buzzing with flies. There were many more tall privacy fences and more mean (well, mean-sounding) dogs. Some fences were broken, and there was a fair amount of trash and abandoned furniture, though this could easily be attributed to the fact it was the first day of the month at the beginning of the school year in a Big Ten university town.
That’s not to say that there weren’t some good finds – alley raspberries were still around, there was still one apple tree, and a beautiful line of alliums were flowering and attracting dozens of pollinators. Squash and tomatoes had found their way outside fences. There was still plenty of beauty and food to look at and to discover.
Yes, the change that had taken place over the 7 years since my last visit was noticeable and unsettling and took up a lot of my brain space as I walked. I wondered about the vacant, uncared-for homes I saw. I wondered if the City ever talked about paving and/or gently placemaking the alleys as a way to encourage residents to explore the history of east Urbana. I thought about the reduced number of gardens I’ve noticed in town over the last few years, and I wondered why that might be, and then I thought about the Great Recession, which came along a year after I stopped walking the alleys. I thought about the increase in the sheer amount of stuff we seem to have acquired since 2007. And I thought about the advent of smart phones – the iPhone was introduced in June 2007 – and how that has changed, quite literally, EVERYTHING, including our concept of leisure time.
And then I thought about people proudly buying or renting their first homes in east Urbana – like we did in 2005 – and wondered how they feel about their neighborhood. Do they think it’s in decline? Are they there to reclaim it? Are they moving in for the long haul or is it a quick stop on the Upward Mobility Trail?
I’m seeing a renaissance, myself. Maybe someday Alley Mowing Guy will see it, too.