When I asked readers to name their favourite alleyway in our survey, I didn’t expect to run up against this roadblock: what is an alleyway anyways?
The official definition is “a narrow street; especially a thoroughfare through the middle of a block giving access to the rear of lots or buildings.”
According to the Centre d’histoire de Montréal, alleyways as we know them first appeared in Montreal around 1845 when large farm-lots were being subdivided into smaller properties. Prior to this, inner courtyards were accessible through private carriage doors, but not from the street. The McTavish property was the first to be planned and subdivided with alleyways in the H-configuration that has since become common in Montreal’s neighbourhoods.
These days, some alleyways have names – some are even called avenues – and these ones generally got the most votes: Demers, Saint-Christophe, Chateaubriand, and Lartigue each got lots of mentions, perhaps simply because they were the easiest to identify. Although they fit the official definition (narrow street; and acess to some rear lots) these alleys a far cry from your typical Montreal ruelle: there are addresses on each of these streets, and some even have sidewalks or parking lanes.
Yet they seem to fall somewhere between rue and ruelle and the rules that quietly organise our urban form fall aside in these places. The streetfront oscillates wildly between front doors that open direclty onto the pavement and deep pockets of back yard. From a birds-eye-view these streets look like jack-o-lantern teeth. On the ground, front steps alternate with spiral fire escapes, picket fences, and backyard tomato gardens. Balconies overhang sidewalks, electrical wires, vines and clothes-lines all cross-cross overhead.
Avenue Lartigue (4 votes), below Sherbrooke between de la Visitation and Panet, feels more like a regular street until it trails of into a dirt path and dead end.
Groll (at least 4 votes) is not only car-free and cobble-stoned, but it has cross walks to create a continueous pedestrian passage across the Mile End.
Other alleys that got mentioned by name were Ruelle Nick Auf-der-Maur and Ruelle des Fortifications, which marks the boundary of the old walled city.
Of course most of Montreal’s network of alleys have no name and this is where things get complicated: how does one cast a vote for something with no name? Some people carefully squared off their alley by naming the 4 surrounding streets, others simply tossed out one adjacent street, and still others described the atmosphere: “alleys of little Italy that smell of basil and where kids play hockey.”
But one trend that emerged was that people have a soft spot for those rare pedestrian-only alleyways that look and feel more like country lanes. All of these ones got mentioned more than once:
I’ve written fondly about this alleyway between Melrose and Draper in NDG, but I swear I didn’t vote for it in the survey.
Almost all of the alleys that were highlighted by our readers were either streets-that-were-alley-like or alleys-that-were-path-like.
But exception stood out: the ruelle precisely between Fabre et de la Visitation and Marquette; St-Zotique et Bélanger (pictured at the top of this post and below), got a whole two votes, once in English and once in French. It isn’t a street, it isn’t a designated “ruelle verte” or a carefully maintained garden path, it’s just the space where people’s backyards spill out into the public sphere. It was also probably the most inhabited alley that I visited. Kids splashed in in-ground pools in their backyards and guitar chords floated in the heat, laundry flapped lazily, a woman crossed the lane to show off a garden-grown zucchini to her neighbour. The flowers were unruly and and ripe raspberries poked through fences.
Touring all these alleyways, I began to wonder why we don’t we fix them up as cycling paths, or pull up the concrete and plant community gardens (especially for those of us on the upper floors), or close them down for block parties?
Right now, most alleyways seem to be in limbo – they are a little bit intimate, a little unruly, and a little neglected. So perhaps the most inspiring answer to the “favourite alleyway” question where those who simply answered “my alleyway.”