Before Baltimore County's vision of suburbia meant houses on cul-de-sacs with driveways and two-car garages, there were back alleys.
But those alleys are wearing out. They're potholed, patched and muddy. And people such as Nora Hernandez and Joseph Smolinski, her Dundalk neighbor of 35 years, are waking up to a harsh reality.
The county doesn't own the alley they share. To get the county to repair an alley, homeowners have to wait for years and agree collectively to pay half of the typical $100,000 cost of a complete concrete repaving job.
Burdened with accumulated complaints, politicians are eager to find cheaper and easier ways to get the job done.
The alleys came with the city people as the Beltway cut a swath through Baltimore County in the late 1950s and new houses sprang up around it in Dundalk, Essex, Overlea-Fullerton, Towson, Catonsville and Arbutus.
On Del Haven Road in Dundalk, where Mrs. Hernandez and Mr. Smolinski live, new brick rowhouses sold for $9,000 in 1958. Behind each block was a wide alley that led to a driveway for each house. The alleys were, and still are, used by trash collection and delivery trucks.
The Del Haven Road residents are beneficiaries of the county's latest experiment. They and residents of two other Dundalk streets have had their alleys repaved free of charge with asphalt and tar and chip sealant, which is less expensive than concrete.
Mrs. Hernandez, who has been working since 1987 to get her alley repaired, said her share of the bill would have been $640 for concrete repaving -- when the county got around to it -- if it were not for the experiment.
"The holes just kept getting bigger," she said of her alley. The water formed ponds in the summer and froze in the winter.
Mr. Smolinski said his rear driveway would constantly fill with water flowing down the alley and that every time he washed his car, someone would drive by and splash mud all over him and the automobile.
"It was a thorn in your side," the 63-year-old retiree said.
George Abendschoen, an aide to County Executive Roger B. Hayden, said elected officials have been peppered with complaints about alleys and that he finally decided, "This is crazy."
He began looking for cheaper ways to fix alleys and came up with blacktop. If it works, he said, the county can repair a lot more alleys with a lot less money.
It wasn't a completely new idea. After organizing the current trial, Mr. Abendschoen found records of a similar experiment in 1979 involving two alleys in Towson and one in Catonsville.
The experiment was never repeated, and all of the public works employees who might have known about it were laid off in this year's budget cuts. But Mr. Abendschoen said the alleys involved in the earlier experiments appear to be in good shape.
This time, the experiment is slightly different because contractors are using a new polymer sealant.
Workers from Genstar Stone Products Co. laid a new blacktop surface over the Del Haven Road alley behind Mrs. Hernandez' and Mr. Smolinki's houses, as well as behind a block of 47th Street in Eastwood. Highway workers recently sealed a third alley off Gough Street.
When warm weather returns in the spring, officials will know whether the blacktop experiment has worked. But at most a handful of 80 or more alleys that need repaving are suitable candidates for the program, said H. William Korpman III, acting chief of capital projects.
Most alleys are either too badly deteriorated or drain too poorly to be sealed with a new blacktop surface, he said. Since the county never assumed ownership of the alleys, the original builders were under no obligation to do a good job. As a result, some were built atop construction trash and other unstable debris, he said.
Other alleys have insufficient drainage or are too flat, allowing water to collect. Still others are too high, so that a new blacktop surface would block fence gates and send water trickling into back yards. Only alleys that aren't badly damaged can be blacktopped, and even then nobody knows how long the job will last.
That's why the county's policy has always been to dig up the concrete from an old alley and replace it with new, long-lasting concrete. The county has $1.1 million budgeted to repair nine alleys in the traditional way next spring, Mr. Korpman said.
Officials don't know exactly how much money blacktopping saves, since the process can require hours of patching and preparation. The county is working up estimates now. Genstar was paid an extra $10,000 to pave the two Dundalk alleys as part of a larger road-paving contract.
A long wait
Residents who want concrete alleys must gather signatures from two-thirds of their neighbors on a petition and then wait five to 10 years for the county to get around to their neighborhood.
Even when the county is ready, the residents must reaffirm their willingness to pay the freight on two occasions, when preliminary and final costs are known.
Baltimore residents have it a bit easier.
The city's procedure for alley replacement is similar -- but with important differences -- said Vanessa Pyatt, spokeswoman for the city public works department.
Alleys in the city also are repaved on a complaint basis, she said, and residents also must pay 50 percent of the cost. But the city has $3 million a year to spend on repaving alleys, and residents don't have to specifically agree in advance to pay their share.
"If 50 percent or more residents are against it, we don't do it," Ms. Pyatt said. Residents have five years to pay their alley repaving bills. She said asphalt blacktopping is sometimes used for temporary resurfacing in the city.
In post-1990 suburbia, alleys are coming back in the newest development plans -- the result of high land prices that have led to houses built closer together and of designers trying to hide cars from view. Kentlands, a 1,700-home development in Montgomery County where new homes start at $250,000, is one of the areas with car-hiding alleys.