Between the Lines I: The history of Downtown's alley system

Downtown's alleys can lead back in time to show a Memphis lost to change and redevelopment. 

Mention alleys and my 91-year-old aunt, Dorothy Greaney, still remembers something that happened in the late 1940s.

She and her friends had just gotten out of the Lowes Palace Theater at 81 Union Avenue. A couple of kids snatched her purse, took off north up Center Lane and then escaped west via General Washburn’s Escape Alley. The thieves were not expecting my aunt and her friends to chase after them. The firefighters at the Downtown station saw the crime and called the police. The duo was caught red handed and the parents came to my grandmother’s house on Stonewall Street to apologize for their son’s misdeed.

Alleys were and a major part of early city plans. But like my aunt’s memory, they usually are not remembered well.
At night the Barboro Alley mural comes alive through the use of projectors playing moving images on the piece. The piece is by artists birdcap and ninjacat. A 1982 Memphis Press-Scimitar article mentioned Paradise Lane. Never heard of it? It was an alley that ran south between 1283 and 1287 Peabody. Birdie Edwards lived next to it and said to the reporter, “There’s a lot of lover’s lane use going on in the alley right under the window where I sleep. One night they got on the car’s horn in their love making.”

Neighbors wanted it closed off and a 2017 visit shows an imposing fence; however, the east-west alley remains. As for a romantic spot, it leaves a lot to be desired.

Alleys were part of the city plan for utilitarian functions, like garbage collection. There was also a darker motive that is the route minorities were supposed to use instead of the main streets.

Though alleys are usually associated with the older parts of town, their comeback in the 1990s continues today, according to University of Memphis Planning professor Dr. Reza Banai.

With neighborhoods that follow the New Urbanism movement, like Harbor Town and South Bluffs, alleys were used to foster a walkable neighborhood. By moving garages to the back of the home and connecting the network with alleys, newly-built homes appeared to be part of a more connected network. 

The fronts of businesses get spruced up every few years but the alleys are rarely redeveloped and therefore can lead to a Memphis from long ago. 

On Center Lane between Gayoso Street and Barboro Alley, a marker from the Center City Commission states that the alley displays Memphis' 19th century architecture better than nearby Main or Front streets.

A historic marker in Center Lane erected by the Center City Commission.

Cobblestones from the days when horses provided most of Memphis’ transportation needs are most visible in our alleys.  One of Memphis’ biggest non-Elvis tourist destinations, The Rendezvous, makes a Downtown alley known to dry-rub barbecue fans from around the globe.

And remember those signs from the 1968 sanitation strike reading “I Am a Man”? They were printed at Wimmer Brother’s Printing Company in Whiskey Chute Alley, now Park Lane.

Park Lane, which runs between Main and Front streets, little resembles its former name. Before the thoroughfare was renamed in 1942, Whiskey Chute Alley was home to saloons, oyster bars, poker games and violence.

Memphian Jasper Smith went to the bars there in 1899 and was never seen again. A statue stands over his empty grave in Elmwood Cemetery, according to Joe Lowry in his book “Memory Lanes”, which is an encyclopedia of street and alley names of old Memphis.

Eszter Sziksz (L) and Stephanie Cosby (R) work on "Skywalker", an art installation in Barboro Alley.

Barboro Alley is another alley with a colorful past. It had an informal name of Dead Man’s Alley up until the 1880s because two undertakers, J. Hinton and Sons and T.J. Collins, operated on opposite ends of the alley. Keep walking east and you’ll come across Belle Tavern, a modern-day speakeasy with an entrance on Barboro Alley.

November 6 Street, which more resembles an alley, was named for the day in 1934 that Memphians voted to receive power from the Tennessee Valley Authority.

A shadow box gallery illuminates a new pocket park adjacent to Maggie H. Isabel alley.Other cities have repurposed their alleys to make them less about trash pickup and more about being a unique destination. Nashville, for example, has turned its Printer’s Alley into a nightlife hub.

Memphis has long aspired to elevate its alleys. In 1964, Memphis’ Downtown Association released a plan to make each alley a “little museum” to Memphis.

One vestige remains at KLYX, now KWAM, Stereo Alley, which played music for pedestrians walking between Second and Third Streets. The speakers are gone, but the sign remains.

In part II of Between the Lines, we look at recent efforts to repurpose Downtown’s alleys.

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Read more articles by Devin Greaney.

Devin Greaney is a Memphis-based freelance writer and photographer who has been published in the Memphis DowntownerDeSoto Magazine and others. He works full time as an Emergency Medical Technician and had an extensive knowledge of the history and geography of the MidSouth area.