Life in the Back Lane, Revisited



A ''neo-traditional'' school of urban designers advocates developments in which houses, offices and shops are within walking distance of each other. Seeking to halt the user-unfriendly sprawl of modern suburbia, these designers want build tightly-knit communities that encourage local pride and identity.

A proposed feature of the neo-traditionalist approach is, as one writer called it, ''a good old-fashioned alleyway.''

This is splendid news for old alley kids like me, who spent much of our youth playing on the cracked concrete of city alleyways. Yet I'm not so sure the mere presence of an alley would lead to the benefits envisioned by the planners.

There is an alley behind my Towson rowhouse, for example, but it tends to eerie calm. No one would mistake it for a hub of communal bonding. My neighbors use it to park their cars. What a change from the bustle that filled the alley behind my family's northeast Baltimore rowhouse 20 to 30 years ago.

Though somewhat concave and broken, that old alley was the dTC center of life in our neighborhood, especially for kids. It gave us sledding in winter, football in autumn, baseball and basketball in spring and summer. We also played dodge ball, hopscotch and a variation on base-stealing called ''runners.'' The alley was a city-block long but only 15 feet wide, which may account for my tendency even now in softball games to hit up the middle.

While the games were great fun, I have equally vivid memories of the vendors who drove their trucks up the alley. The ones we saw most were the squat, white, Good Humor ice cream trucks and the unmarked step-vans from which snowballs were sold. These vendors usually came twice a day, right after lunch and dinner, sounding the tiny bells that caused the Pavlovian response in our parents to dig down for spare change.

Less frequently, but just as memorably, a portable merry-go-round stopped in our alley, or a truck would park and unload ponies for us to ride.

As I recall them, the scenes of merry-go-rounds and ponies set incongruously in our little alley seem fantasy-like, as though Fellini's ''Amarcord'' were dubbed in English with a Baltimore accent. I might doubt myself that these things happened if I didn't have family and friends to confirm that they did.

Not all the action ''out back'' was for kids. Our parents were eager customers of the truck vendors who peddled fruit, vegetables and top soil.

I remember one produce man who sang ''Strawwwww-berries! Blooooo-berries! Cher-air-air-eeeees!'' in an operatic tenor that Pavarotti might envy. The guy who belted out ''TOP soil!'' was less musical, but he made up for it in volume. He put a premature end to more than a few toddlers' naps.

Then there was the stooped old man who walked the alley with his equipment to sharpen knives and scissors. Imagine a man skulking about the suburbs today, offering to make sharp objects sharper. Someone would dial 911 so fast the poor guy wouldn't know what hit him.

Even before I left home some 15 years ago, the vendors were going the way of all outmoded things. They were made obsolete, in large part, by convenience stores, expanded supermarkets, shopping malls, big hardware marts and other outlets of the burgeoning service economy.

Why wait for an ice cream truck, after all, when you can hop on a bike and sample the cornucopia of frozen treats at the nearby 7 Eleven? Why play hopscotch in a steaming alley when you can hang out at the air-conditioned mall? (For that matter, do self-respecting, Nintendo-crazed kids play hopscotch?) Why listen for a produce truck when you can find all fruits and vegetables at the Giant?

One other social change explains the demise of the alley vendors and of the alleys as centers of activity. Two to three decades ago, children and their parents -- usually mothers -- stayed close to home and provided the sellers a captive clientele. The vendors provided convenience to their customers.

Later, moms took to the work force. With fewer of them at home, more kids began spending summer days away from the neighborhood at day-care centers and camps. The captive clientele broke loose.

But now comes a group of urban designers with plans that feature ''old-fashioned'' alleyways. I wish they could somehow guarantee that their alleys will include kids at play and an occasional truck vendor. Then they might be onto something.

Patrick Ercolano writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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