Our Town: Atlanta

Neighborhood turns alley ‘issue’ into a feature

Each Saturday, we shine a spotlight on a local neighborhood, city or community. To suggest a place for us to visit, e-mail H.M. Cauley at hm_cauley@yahoo.com or call 770- 744-3042.

Information about the city’s “Love Your Block” grants: iamatlanta.org/content/love-your-block.

Drive through some of Atlanta’s established neighborhoods, and it’s hard to find a garage facing the street. Intown neighborhoods were often laid out with streetscapes that focused on front porches and sidewalks rather than places to park the car.

But behind those houses, many developers laid out networks of alleys that linked to freestanding garages, back yards and, most frequently, the trash bins. While many of those access ways have disappeared, either overgrown or reclaimed into existing lots, some still exist. In Virginia-Highland, alleys behind Maiden Lane between Barnett and Frederica streets have become a source of community connection, bringing neighbors together to make them functional once more.

“If you go back and look at the [neighborhood] plat, you see the alley was designed for garbage collection and utilities,” said Jeffrey Keesee, a 2-year resident of the neighborhood who has been one of the catalysts behind the alley cleanup. “But for years, it’s been a primary access way for AT&T because there’s a power line back there. We own it collectively, but it still has an easement for utility access.”

Keesee and his neighbors along St. Charles Avenue knew of other alleys that had been restored. One in Poncey-Highland was reclaimed with new plantings; another off Virginia Avenue has become a popular path where neighbors have held yard sales. But it wasn’t until a brush fire in their alley last winter that Keesee and his colleagues got serious about making improvements.

“People were camping back there, and they built a fire that got out of control,” said Keesee. “That’s when everybody said, ‘Let’s be proactive.’ We had several clean-up dates in February and March, and then we received a $1,000 Love Your Block grant from the city.”

The money went toward eradicating the undergrowth, adding gravel and taking out some trees. The neighbors also had help from Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which, instead of money, sent 30 college students to do some of the heavy lifting. The neighbors also decided to drop the word “alley” when referring to the area, and instead, they now call it Maiden Trail.

“There were negative connotations about saying ‘alley,’ ” said Keesee. “And since the trail lines up with Maiden Lane, the named seemed to fit.”

This summer, the trail has developed a following of residents from the surrounding community.

“There are about 500 households withing walking distance of this alley, so there’s a lot of foot traffic back there now,” said Keesee. “We could have fenced it all off and not dealt with it, but we decided to create a situation that invites more people to use it. We changed the alley into a feature rather than an issue.”