If you tuned in yesterday, you saw that I have declared this the Week of Winter Walking, because I’m on break, and because February is almost over, and because my body is desperately begging to move around more. Following the suggestion of my good friend Nick, and because it’s Madison Monday, today I tackled the alleys of downtown.
This is not my first alley post, and in fact one of the first Madison Monday’s ever was about my favorite alley, the one that runs between 2nd and Main. I won’t bore you with the exact details of my route today, in part because I doubt I could re-trace it. Alleys are complicated things. Today I discovered an alley between 3rd and Main on the north side of town that dead ends in the middle of the block.
Alleys, as my friend Nick pointed out, give you a completely different view of the same town. Walking down the alley, it’s as if you’re in an alternate universe. It’s shocking at the end when you suddenly emerge onto a familiar street.
Alleys are a sensual experience, for good and ill. Of course there are all the things to see. One of the wonders of walking through Madison’s alleys is getting a view of how the buildings use space. Sometimes it appears as if each block is an infinitely complicated 3D puzzle put together by a mad person. Alleys teach you about the urban use of space, in which every square inch matters. Is there room for a tiny little outbuilding here? Then squeeze it in!
The sounds in an alley are similar to what you might hear walking on the street, though probably with more barking dogs. But the sounds are lent a kind of mystery by being unable to see their source. You can hear the sound of a fountain gurgling in someone’s backyard, but you probably can’t see it. Conversations overheard in an alley are different. Who knows what you might hear people talking about in the privacy of their backyard or from a back window?
Then there are the smells. Cooking food behind the Broadway Tavern. Detergent and fabric softener behind the laundromat. Garbage, of course. And in one section of alley between 2nd and Main, the distinct odor of fish and beach. It was as if I were suddenly in Florida, standing in the surf.
In an alley, anything is possible.
P.S. A short aside. You see how Fountain Alley terminates with a view of the fountain on Broadway? This is how city planners did things back in the day, carefully and with an eye to aesthetics. “If we’re going to put a fountain on Broadway, let’s put it in a place where it will be framed in the view from the alley,” I can imagine them saying. Will it make us lots of money or win us elections or get our name in the paper? No. Will it be a sweet, sweet semi-hidden pleasure for generations of people to come? Yes. Wouldn’t it be nice if people still thought like that today?