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Alley houses, now an ‘endangered species,’ were once the core of working-class Baltimore

Alley houses sit on Portugal Street, one of Baltimore's iconic alley streets, in 2017. Once a popular way to provide affordable housing, estimates are only a few hundred alley houses remain in the city.
Alley houses sit on Portugal Street, one of Baltimore's iconic alley streets, in 2017. Once a popular way to provide affordable housing, estimates are only a few hundred alley houses remain in the city. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

The tradition of alley houses in Baltimore predates the city itself.

Estimates now are that only a few hundred remain standing, threatening the preservation of Baltimore’s history, according to Johns Hopkins, executive director of Baltimore Heritage Inc. and a relative of the 19th-century entrepreneur who founded the university and hospital of the same name.

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The small two-story homes, traditionally 10 to 12 feet wide with entrances off alley streets too narrow to maneuver a modern car through, have been a cornerstone of Baltimore architecture since the 1780s as a way to provide affordable housing to working-class families.

The tradition of alley houses was borrowed from the British who designed early city grids with small streets called “mews” that stretched to the back of city lots where horse stables were located, according to Mary Ellen Hayward in her book “Baltimore Alley Houses: Homes for Working People since the 1780s.”

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Baltimore also adopted the tradition of ground rent from England, a system where developers sell houses but keep the land on which they are built, allowing them to charge homeowners rent for the land, making homeownership more accessible, according to Hopkins.

“For the landowner, it meant the more houses you can put on your parcel, the more ground rent you can get. So, there was this economic incentive to build everywhere or as much as you could including on the small streets or alleys,” Hopkins said.

Developers in the early 1800s borrowed the style of houses in wealthier neighborhoods when designing the compact homes, which often consisted of two to three bedrooms, a kitchen and living room. Early alley houses did not have indoor bathrooms or front yards, but builders took inspiration from the three-story Federal-style homes popular at the time, according to Hayward’s research.

“This solution proved to be practical and dignified, and it led to one of the largest homeownership ratios in the country by the late nineteenth century,” Hayward wrote in her book.

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Because of their affordability, alley homes became a way for working-class people to own houses, creating economically diverse neighborhoods. The alley houses provided affordable living facing narrow streets between larger homes, while wealthier families owned and lived in the main-street facing houses.

This also provided for racially integrated communities. According to Hayward’s book, by the 1820s and 1830s, “almost every street in Fells Point had both Black and white residents.”

Alley houses were home to laborers, Irish, German and Polish immigrants, and, particularly after the Civil War, formerly enslaved Black people. Frederick Douglass’ first home in Baltimore was an alley home in Fells Point off Aliceanna Street and Happy Alley.

Alley house neighborhoods forged a sense of community among residents, as a place “where children could play without fear of onrushing traffic and where stoop-sitting neighbors could easily converse as well as look after each others houses,” according to Hayward’s book.

But by the 1900s, the influx of immigrants and growth of predominantly Black alley house neighborhoods in Baltimore drove government officials to raise an eyebrow at alley house communities.

In what was a nationwide trend of expressing concern over low-income housing conditions, Baltimore’s Federated Charities commissioned a study of alley houses in 1906. The study depicted houses situated in cramped buildings with little natural light and no indoor toilets.

But the government’s attitude toward residents of alley houses also was couched in racial prejudice and political motivations.

Janet Kemp, the researcher tasked with the study, described German residents as “clean,” while, according to Harward’s book, she wrote of Black people living off Biddle Alley and Hughes Street this way: “‘It is impossible to observe these gregarious, lighthearted, shiftless, irresponsible alley dwellers without wondering to what extent their failings are the result of their surroundings.’”

As a result of the study, Baltimore banned the construction of houses on streets narrower than 40 feet in 1908, effectively ending the construction of alley houses.

“The apostles of good government actually did a disservice to the local citizenry,” Hayward wrote of the 1908 decision.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Baltimore launched “slum clearance” programs focused on demolishing and replacing houses they deemed rundown or vacant, many of which were alley houses.

In a reflection of society’s attitudes toward alley house communities at the time, The Baltimore Evening Sun on Jan. 19, 1938, declared of alley houses, “For the most part their inhabitants are the economic and moral dregs and the influence of such an environment is to perpetuate itself.”

Instead of improving the conditions of alley houses, during this period, the Housing Authority of Baltimore City focused on tearing down and replacing alley houses, most of which were in predominantly Black neighborhoods, with three-story apartment buildings, some of which were designated for white residents and some for Black residents. This is how housing projects such as Perkins Homes and Latrobe Homes came to be, according to Hayward’s research.

“One of the hidden agendas in selecting which ‘blighted ' areas to improve involved keeping ‘the colored population’ contained,” wrote Hayward, citing a 1934 memo from a federal housing inspector.

This demolition of alley houses continued for decades. In the 1970s, hundreds of alley house rows in Harlem Park were destroyed to make way for inner block parks, according to Hopkins.

Between 1995 and 2000, Baltimore focused on eliminating 2,000 vacant rowhouses, many of which were alley homes, according to Hayward’s research.

Hopkins said the elimination of alley houses is not just a thing of the past. He estimates only a dozen or so alley home rows still exist in the city today, with the number of individual houses likely in the hundreds.

“They’re an endangered species,” Hopkins said.

And for Hopkins, the loss of alley houses comes at a cost.

“What we are losing is affordable housing, both rental housing and co-ownership opportunities and we are losing it in neighborhoods where other urban policies are spending a lot of money to promote affordable housing opportunities, rental and homeownership,” Hopkins said. “We are missing something by not taking an opportunity to look into historical houses with this rich history and function that is just as needed today as it was when they were built.”

Baltimore Sun newsroom librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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