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Investigating neighborhoods is right up his alley


LONG AGO I learned to investigate a neighborhood through its back alleys. Walk past garages, clotheslines and garbage drums, and learn little secrets, or at least think you do.

I hit major pay dirt one morning this week as I walked down Hargrove Alley, the passage that parallels St. Paul and Calvert streets. Scattered across the pavement was a bonanza of 1960s record albums. The platters had been broken as if someone who had issues with Mantovani had deliberately taken chunks out of the vinyl.

There was quite a tattered remnant of the mid-Vietnam era, with discs by the Association and Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. It was a hot morning and, in a nice touch, the first one to catch my attention was a Christmas selection by Ray Conniff and his chorus.

I often try to attach meaning to a cache like this. I don't believe this to be random dumping; my guess is that an old Calvert Street home was being cleaned before a thorough renovation. Baltimoreans love to stockpile stuff for decades. Only death, bankruptcy proceedings or land transfer seem to dislodge these archives.

Some people will judge a neighborhood's economic status by the way a house looks from the main street. I use the alleys. My personal Dun & Bradstreet test is to walk the alleys on recycling day. I've noticed that recycling best appeals to those who live in environmentally friendly ZIP codes. But the trick is to look for recyclables placed in the brown, biodegradable bags from the area's fancier grocery stores. I call this an alley status symbol, to have your old crushed whole-grain cereal boxes displayed in a super ritzy grocery sack.

A few weeks ago I was taking an alley shortcut when I spotted a good-sized pile of possibly tempting stuff set out free for the taking. There were bowling balls, metal bookcases, a wicker lamp or two and usable sports equipment.

I tried to figure this riddle out -- why would it be tossed when it had some value? I was tempted to snatch a few items, but then I answered my own question. The stuff would only sit in my cellar. I think some practical person said, don't worry about the $25 it might bring, just put it out and let the alley culture take over.

Sure enough, by the next morning, I spotted the very items I'd seen the previous evening. They were neatly arranged at a yard sale about four blocks distant, all tagged and priced.

A few years ago, a friend was cleaning out a deceased neighbor's home and couldn't part with her extensive collection of Opera News magazines, which he dropped on my porch. After examining them, I placed them in a large trash can and felt a little guilty about expelling someone's carefully preserved treasure. Not to worry. Later in the day, I observed a neighbor intently fishing them out, no doubt to be enjoyed by her extensive collection of cats.

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