AMONG RELICS of early American urban life are alley houses, tiny residences whose occupants decades ago used to serve as domestics or handymen in wealthier neighborhood households or work at public markets and small businesses.
Hundreds of thousands of working-class alley houses have been razed in America's aging cities since World War II in the name of urban renewal. In Baltimore, blocks and blocks were wiped out in the 1940s and 1950s when the tiny slum houses were deemed to be too small to be economically equipped with the modern conveniences that had become a citywide building and sanitation code requirement.
Another attack on this endangered species will come this summer, when the Schmoke administration plans to demolish 819 vacant rowhouses. Among them are many abandoned and derelict 10-to-12-feet-wide alley houses.
Will alley houses go the way of a-rabbers, those itinerant fruit and vegetable hucksters who were a local tradition but whose colorful horses and bugs have virtually disappeared from Baltimore Streets? After all, families along many alleys lived next door to the stables which housed their animals.
There are examples of Baltimore alley houses that have been given a new lease on life. Several are now middle-class homes on Dover Street, near UniversityCenter downtown, or on Rutter Street, in Bolton Hill. Many slum alley houses, though, are either boarded up or located in drug- and crime-infested areas. The latter include once-picturesque West Baltimore alleys like Etting Street. It is difficult to be optimistic about their future.
"The old alley houses are a central part of the city's history. It would be a tragedy if they were all wiped out," says Mary Ellen Hayward, who is involved in a new study of alley houses. That effort, which includes collecting oral histories, will run through the fall of 1997.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong about alley houses. As Foggy Bottom and Capitol Hill in Washington illustrate, alley houses can be successfully renovated to modern residences. That, however, requires that they are in desirable locations.
In the absence of favorable economic conditions, alley houses are doomed to join other relics of vanishing Baltimore.
Pub Date: 6/19/96