In nearly every historic commercial district, there are two sides: the “public face”, which includes the storefront, the streetscape, and most of the activity; and the “behind-the-scenes area”, which includes the back alleys, utilities, and delivery zones. But more and more, these behind the-scenes spaces are being transformed into vibrant, active, public spaces, often for very little cost. And the great thing is, the “unfinished” or “gritty” appearance of these areas actually creates a perfect backdrop for the types of activities often held within them.

Some of these alleyways are in the rear of the buildings, some are on the side, some are public right-of-ways, some are privately-owned. Some serve multiple properties, some serve only one. The current use can sometimes dictate what can or cannot be done with a space. If deliveries and trash pick-up are located here and there is no other logical location for these services, it could limit or alter any reuse plans. But in example after example across the country, creative ways to work around these issues are found, often with an artist’s touch.

Simple artwork, or impromptu gatherings can turn a lifeless area into a hub of activity, like Burner Alley in Montreal (left), or Pearl Street Alley in Philadelphia (center). Create a romantic and inviting dining area, like in Mayville, WI (right). Photos from L to R by Montreal in Pictures, Asian Art Initiative, and NOLA North Grille-Mayville

During this month’s series of blogs, we will highlight a number of successful alley transformations, from a new, vibrant alley in Oskaloosa, Iowa, to an alley in Flint, Michigan that even has its own annual festival. We will also discuss how opening up the rear entrances of buildings can help with access to nearby parking, or help to cope with Main Street reconstruction, or to provide accessibility to people with disabilities.

Our first inspirational case study is “Osky, the Alley”, in Oskaloosa, IA, a fun, award-winning transformation completed in 2016. This project has everything we preach in Main Street… public and private involvement, a dedicated group of volunteers, utilization of local artists and businesses, promoting history, hosting special events, and on and on. It began when five women (Karen, Ann, Deb, Theresa and Sherry) partnered with Mainstreet Oskaloosa to form Alley KADTS. Their mission was to spruce up a highly visible, litter-strewn service alley between their town square and the downtown mall. They met with local businesses and officials, heard their needs and concerns, and developed a plan.

Oskaloosa The Alley

Before and after views of the Oskaloosa, Iowa alley. Photos by Oskaloosa News.

By May of 2016, the cleanup had begun, and by July it had opened. String lights, tables and planters were installed, with metal framing designed by a local business, metal art pieces created by local students, and plant maintenance done by local greeneries. Then, working with the local historic preservation commission, a series of 24 historical information boards were created, each highlighting the area’s heritage and famous residents.

The centerpiece of the alley is the fun and funky arch, designed by a young, local artist, and built by a local fabricator.  It highlights major elements of Oskaloosa’s past, from music, agriculture, coal mining, Native Americans, and of course corn. It serves as an inviting gateway, drawing people in from the town square.

Alley Activation

Photos (L-R) by William Penn University, The Alley, Oskaloosa News

The space is used by the whole community, including patrons of a nearby coffee shop, downtown apartment dwellers, and lunchtime users. It is also used for anniversary parties, special events, and other gatherings. It is the location of the “Thankful Thursdays” wine event held every week during the summer, which is sponsored by a different business each time. The alley has been so successful, the downtown mall even expanded its entrance to allow for better access to and from the alley.

The alley even has its own Facebook page and a volunteer corps composed of the five women who make up the Alley KADTS, their husbands (Tom KADTS), children (Alley Kittens), and others (Stray KADTS), who keep the alley looking its best. Funding came from local and regional grants as well as donations. In-kind contributions came in the form of advertising, plant maintenance, design work, artwork, and more. It won a statewide Iowa Placemaking Award, as well as an Outstanding Beautification Project Award from Main Street Iowa.

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