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Backstage: Exploring the alleys of Durham

Über alleys 

Alley 14, Durham.

Photo by Lisa Sorg

Alley 14, Durham.

It all started at Alley 26. Not the bar, although I've spent many hours nursing a Brown Derby there, but the actual cut-through between Chapel Hill and Orange streets. I came to love the graffiti, the fire escapes and the mysterious red door that never seemed to open. I became obsessed with a tree that has grown in the slot between two buildings and towers over them. A man smoking in the alley once told me the tree drops seed pods that kill all the plants below it. That's why it has endured.

My fascination with back streets has taken me to more than 30 of the alleys of Durham. When you look at a map—we've provided one, along with an audio slideshow, (with natural sound) many of Durham's alleys are numbered, 1 through 32. Most are clustered downtown and in residential areas near Duke's East Campus, but several lie on the outskirts, such as Alley 30 off Carolina Circle in Forest Hills (now closed) and Alley 35 on the East Side, near Joe's Diner on Angier Avenue.

A few have names, such as Trinity Heights Alley A and B, while others are anonymous stubs, such as the one that runs between the former Durham Social Services building and a parking garage.

We've lost a few alleys to parking lots and houses. But when Holland Alley between Chapel Hill and Morgan Streets, adjacent to the future Hotel Durham, became endangered, the downtown community rushed to protect it. It will remain open.

Residential alleys reveal a secret world of honeysuckle clouds and charcoal smoldering beneath grills. They are populated by rabbits—this year's crop seems particularly bountiful—and birds that scold the cats lurking below the trees. They are mostly graveled, though a few are paved and stained with mulberry juice.

We show our best faces through our front yards—mowed, trimmed, weeded and gardened—but our back yards express our truest selves. The view from the alley reveals cars that need fixing, junk we can't bear to part with, projects we haven't finished, Adirondack chairs and trampolines. Back yards are where we try on other identities, sometimes hidden behind tall wooden fences.

Urban alleys show another secret world—one of decay, where garbage rots and paint peels and buildings crumble. But you can get around that. The residents and businesses of Alley 25 and Alley 26 have spruced them up with planters. In the morning, Alleys 8 and 10 are filled with the aroma of coffee and breakfast. From Alley 24, you can hear conversations, including some that people are holding with themselves.

Alleys serve a more noble purpose than convenience. Walk them and you can learn what we do and do not value. You can discover the beauty of the unseen.

Here are the alleys I explored for the story "Über Alleys” in the INDY’s Summer Guide. Have a favorite alley in Durham? Add it to this map.

View Durham's Alleys in a full screen map

At press time Tuesday, the media reported that a woman reported being sexually assaulted in Alley 9 early Sunday morning.

  • Backstage: Exploring the alleys of Durham

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