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Secondary Corridors: What's The History Of Bloomington's Alleyways?

A shot of a downtown Bloomington alley showing the old courthouse on the square.

One of downtown Bloomington's many alleyways. (Pat Beane, WFIU/WTIU News)

They’re the streets with no names. Never listed on the map and generally an afterthought.

Bonnie Brownlee has lived in Bloomington for nearly 40 years. She taught at the IU School of Journalism for 24 years before retiring in 2015 as the chair of the Media School’s journalism department.

But, like many of us, she never paid much heed to alleys that bisect the city - until COVID-19 took hold of the country and shut down many of the places she normally spends her time her time.

“My partner and I were, like many other people who like to swim, forbidden to swim because there were no pools inside back in March,” Brownlee said. “So, we decided to start walking.”

And noticing all those little side paths between city blocks.

“And then that got me wondering about Bloomington and who manages these?” she said. “Are they managed by the folks who live on the alleys? Are they managed by the city? When the snow comes, who plows them? Are there ever disputes among the residents who live on the alleys about what's going on on the alleys?”

And that led her to reach out to City Limits to ask about Bloomington’s alley’s.

Historically, alleys were plotted out between city blocks to provide rear access to a property. Back there, deliveries could be made, trash piled for collection, flotsam stored and transportation housed. Generally, things you want to keep out of sight of the public.

For the most part, that’s still the case.

Joe Van Deventer is the director of street operations for the city of Bloomington. It’s his department’s job to maintain the city’s 33½ miles of alleys. They get the same treatment as streets – paving, snow removal, keeping trees and brush cleared. Just not the same attention.

“We've done more (snow removal) lately than in the past, because now it seems like they're hooking, some of these apartment buildings to alleys, and it's really increased the traffic volume on those,” Van Deventer said. “So, we have a few that we have to, if that's the person's only way in and out, it has to be plowed. But it's usually low on the priority list. “

MORE FROM CITY LIMITS: What's The Definition Of A Core Neighborhood?

It’s up to the public to report issues with alleys to the city for maintenance. There’s a link to on the city’s website to file a U-report.

Van Deventer said one of the most common complaints revolves gravel washed out by heavy rains and those areas are filled and the area regarded.

“There's money we have money budgeted for alleys, you know, repairs and whatnot,” Van Deventer said. “I think we had $168,000 budgeted for 2019 for repairs, and that’s for stone and asphalt and everything.”

But that’s just a small fraction of the city’s budget last year for the city’s 234 miles of streets and 235 miles of sidewalks.

But at least all the alleys aren’t at the bottom of the totem pole.

Two years ago, the Bloomington city council approved a $10 million bond to fund seven public improvement projects as part of the bicentennial celebration. One of those was the Downtown Alley Activation project.

The plan called for fixing draining issues, replacement of the road surface and installation of a pedestrian walkway in the alleys bounded by College and Walnut to the east and west, and by Sixth Street and Seventh Street to the north and south.

A more than century old water line running east and west under the alley was replaced this summer, and work has begun on overhauling the alleys.

“It’s gonna be nice,” Van Deventer said. “It’s all concrete. We're gonna try to keep it clear in the wintertime with snow removal. But I thought, yeah, I think it can be a nice pedestrian walkway now.

“They’re also doing the alley right beside the Bluebird that runs from Walnut over to Washington. There's just a lot of foot traffic there. And they’ve added lighting, and I think I think it'll be really nice.”

There is no alley on the south side of the courthouse square, but the alleys on the east and west have been modernized.

The rest of the alleys should be so lucky.

MORE FROM CITY LIMITS: How Does The Kirkwood Ave. Closure Affect Access For Those With Disabilities?

Alleys are identified only by location. For example, the alley between First and University Streets between Woodlawn Avenue and Hawthorne Drive. That alley is paved . Others are gravel. Van Deventer says it all depends on age, location, draining and foot traffic.

“The reason some of them are gravel is, you know, for drainage issues, and I'm afraid of some of them were paved, it would increase our drainage problems with some homeowners, because there’s some low lying areas, and I’d hate to built the road up  higher than their house,” he said. “But, you know, what you're trying to do is keep them maintained. And, like I said, some of them are getting traveled a lot more now that they’ve added apartments onto them, but all we can do is try to keep them graded and safe to travel.”

Property owners are responsible for the land that borders the alley, so what it looks like along the alley depends on whose property you’re passing.

Van Deventer says he hasn’t heard of any disputes between owners over alleys, but noted that would be an issue for the police department. As would be keeping the alleys clear from parked cars.

Alleys remain as they always have, serving as necessary side routes and access roads, somewhat lost in the infrastructure of the city’s streets. But not forgotton, as Brown recalls from her walks.

“You start remembering things, at least I did, from your youth, visiting an aunt in Detroit who had a great alley behind her house,” Brownlee said. “And, and there was a delivery sort of thing. So, I wondered if the history in Bloomington had something to do with delivery of milk, hiding horses, putting cars in the back of alleys, garbage collection. But I suppose none of those things apply today.”

But most of them do. At least the ones that don’t involve horses.

Have a question? Ask City Limits:

Our community is changing, from closing businesses to traffic and road construction to affordable housing, and we see the impact of these changes all around us.

We want to know: What questions do you have about how the Bloomington of tomorrow will impact your work, your personal life, your community and your future?

Here’s how it works: You submit a question you’d like us to explore about how Bloomington has changed over the past few decades, what you want to see for the city in the future and how ties with IU continue to shape the community.  

So: What do you wonder about how Bloomington is changing and how it impacts your life?

Interested in an ongoing conversation how Bloomington is changing? Join our Facebook group!

Want to contact your legislators about an issue that matters to you? Find out how to contact your senators and member of Congress here.

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