What makes an alley an alley?
As with the Supreme Court’s definition of pornography, you know it when you see it. Whether lined with dumpsters and standing puddles or full of feral cats gnawing on fish skeletons, an alley is obvious. They’re narrow, often too narrow to allow street parking. Mostly, the rears of buildings are what face them. They’re often dead-end streets, with older building stock and poor-quality asphalt. If there are sidewalks at all, they’re usually cramped and uneven. Alleys hold quirks: little wrinkles of city life, from ghost ads to murals to secret gardens to the occasional detached single-family dwelling tucked behind an apartment complex. Ever mysterious, San Francisco is full of them.
There’s no standard definition, though, and sometimes even the most unpleasant dead-end can fancify itself with a name like “Place” or “Terrace.” Poring over maps and biking around town, SF Weekly explored nearly every alley that we could, from the infamous to the borderline-unknown, to present the most comprehensive portrait we could.
For this issue, we held to a few criteria so as not to categorize every last side street as an alley. Chiefly, as streets, they must be irregular or one-offs, not expected parts of a neighborhood’s grid. This stipulation disqualified large sections of the original Western Addition, all those frequently charming side streets named for trees and flowers — like Linden, Rose, Myrtle, and the like — that are interspersed among the bigger thoroughfares between Duboce Avenue and California Street, from Larkin to Fillmore.
We didn’t consider certain idiosyncratic streets in residential neighborhoods, like Shore View Avenue in the Outer Richmond or Lupine Avenue in Anza Vista — or even dead-ends like Emmett Court in Bernal Heights, St. Germain Avenue near Twin Peaks, Potomac Street in the Lower Haight, or Earl Street in Hunters Point just beyond Archimedes Banya. Nor did we obsess over outlying oddities like the enigmatic Maryland Street, something we challenge anyone to find without Googling. But we thought to include some block-long tree-lined, pastoral thoroughfares that might better be understood as lanes, because they’re unique and worth exploring.
Most of S.F.’s alleys are contained in older neighborhoods like Chinatown, Russian Hill, and SoMa. Others pop up in unexpected places. While its almost-ghoulish name suggests a world without Roe v. Wade, would you believe that Back Alley Way is actually in upscale Corona Heights, near Mt. Olympus?
Others anomalies of the grid present an even more ambiguous situation. Take Natoma Street, for instance. It runs in five discontinuous segments between Fremont Street and 15th Street, alternating between residential and industrial zones. Urban renewal and the force of time broke Natoma up, but in spite of its alley-esque components, it’s simply too long. Same goes for Capp Street, which is also strangely wide — until it fishtails almost straight into Mission Street near Cesar Chavez.
Above all, an alley should feel different in scale from its surrounding streets, otherwise three-quarters of Bernal Heights would qualify. Beyond an unplanned feel, they should impart either an anachronistic quality, as if left over from an earlier iteration of the city, or else a sense of outright bafflement: Why is this here? Walk down enough alleys and you start to get a feel for a Jane Jacobs-esque relationship between anarchy and charm.
We invite you to judge all this for yourself. Walk around enough and you might discover a rusting Wonder Bread factory or a faded sign advertising patent medicine. Did you know there’s even a semi-secret grid of streets named for counties of California that runs perpendicular to the “state streets” of Potrero Hill and partially overlays the numbered grid? Alameda Street, Sierra Street, Humboldt, Marin — the evidence is right there, often in the form of alleys, if you know where to look.
See more of SF Weekly‘s alleys issue:
The Comprehensive Guide to San Francisco’s Alleys
From the gorgeous to the hideous to the absolutely inexplicable, we scoured the city by foot and on bikes to document hundreds of alleys, side streets, and lanes.
Behind Clarion Alley Hides the Lesser-Known Balmy Alley
This block off 24th Street has stayed true to its artistic values, even as the neighborhood changed around it.