Residents take care of a transformed alley at Matthews Street and Penrith Dr. Photo by Brizette Castellanos.

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The laughter of four barefoot boys fills the air as they race desk chairs — not in a park, but rather in an improvised backyard, which happens to be an alley in Boyle Heights.

The alley’s surface is newly paved and plain. But it’s a large improvement over its previous beaten-up, unpaved state. Old tires have been painted gold and mounted on the alley’s fences as planters, each holding bright geraniums.

For many kids in park-poor communities like Boyle Heights, not having a backyard to play in sometimes means not playing at all. What these communities do have are alleys. A lot of them. This is one reason why some city planners, community organizers and neighborhoods are looking at alleys as possible playgrounds and community gathering places.

“There’s about 20 kids that are always here, and they have to stay inside because there’s nothing they can do here,” says 15-year-old Stephanie Espinoza, a community volunteer. “They have no park nearby, and in the alleyway there were too many holes. That’s why we decided to help with the alley, so they would have a place to play near their houses.”

Unión de Vecinos, a non-profit that helps people improve their neighborhoods, sponsors a committee focused on transforming alleys in the Boyle Heights community. The organization gets input from residents and helps them create safe places.

From Eyesore to Asset
That was the idea behind beautifying another alley between Mathews Street and Penrith Drive. About 20 residents got involved. The result is an alley whose surface is painted a bright blue-green decorated with pictures of ocean creatures. Colorful planters with vegetables and flowers line the walls and are sometimes used to close off the alley for birthday parties or community events. Lights have been installed to provide security.

“People used to look at the alleys and think something bad could happen to them there, but now it looks beautiful,” Espinoza says. “It’s safe for people to walk through here at night, and people like it more.”

Alleys have been around since Roman times. Initially, their purpose was to make travel throughout the city easier. Today, alleys are often avoided or used as dumping grounds or meeting places for gangs.

Residents take care of a transformed alley at Matthews Street and Penrith Dr. Photo by Brizette Castellanos.
Residents take care of a transformed alley at Matthews Street and Penrith Dr. Photo by Brizette Castellanos.

A 2010 study of alleys in Los Angeles, “The Forgotten and the Future: Reclaiming Back Alleys for a Sustainable City,” documented more than 900 miles of alleys, an area equivalent to nearly half of 4,310-acre Griffith Park.

Alleys are common in low-income communities, such as Boyle Heights, which studies have shown have less park acreage than more affluent neighborhoods. Boyle Heights has less than three-quarters of an acre of park space for every 1,000 residents, compared with a national average of 41 acres, according to a 2009 report from Resources for the Future.

In many neighborhoods, alleys impart an air of danger. They are dirty and often poorly lit. Alleys are often seen as areas of crime, but that can be changed with the help of the community.
Professor Jennifer Wolch, dean of the College of Environmental Design at University of California, Berkeley, says the proximity of alleys to many city residents means they “could become something to communities,” places for physical activity. “People need access [to parks] within a quarter of a mile, or they are not going to use park space,” she says.

Fostering safety
A police presence and lighting are important for assuring safety, Wolch says, but having planned events is also important. “Having people doing things in alleys, playing and bike riding and sitting around socializing, those are also important aspects of keeping a place safe,” she says.

Since the renovation of the alley between Mathews and Penrith, neighbors say the alley feels safer, and it has remained free from tagging and trash dumping.

Residents block off the alley with the planter boxes and hold birthday parties, show movies, and have karaoke nights. While the alley was once a place to avoid, it is now a place where the community can come together.

“The more that people are occupying the space, it changes the conditions that make it unsafe. It’s that visibility and that presence of people that are using the space and are not just letting [the alley] be torn down and deteriorated that really makes it safer for people,” says Elizabeth Blaney, co-founder of Unión de Vecinos.

Espinoza agrees. “Now people actually respect this area,” she says. “Before people would drop trash everywhere, and write on the walls. [Now] they haven’t dared to tag on the walls because the mural is there.”

Alma Salcido, community organizer for the Unión de Vecinos. says residents have named the alley between Mathews Street and Penrith Drive “Bienestar,” which means wellbeing, to reflect their goal for the community. “The idea begins with the needs of the people that live in that place,” she says. “The goal is that the community feels better.”

(Note: Additional photos used by Kris Fortin for were used in the produced video)

Imelda Mercado

Imelda Mercado is a sophomore at Theodore Roosevelt High School. In her free time, she enjoys listening to music, hanging out with her friends and watching movies. She hopes to major in medical science.

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