Broken bottles litter the ground. Vibrant graffiti covers parts of the brick. There’s even a Volkswagen Cabriolet snuggled up against a building as delivery trucks unload clean linens.
With their filthy grease vats and broken pavement, the alleys of Columbia represent a perhaps overlooked, yet integral, element of life downtown.
Groups in charge of downtown have taken notice of the alleys, and for more than three years they have worked to improve them. The renovations, which include replacing Dumpsters with trash compactors and removing grease vats, are still in progress. One city representative even wants to consider giving them names. The alleys are not just the ugly ducklings of Columbia anymore.
Carrie Gartner, director of the Downtown Association, said cleanliness is one of two goals for the alleys.
“We want to make the alleys more pedestrian-friendly and clear the Dumpsters so that delivery people can unload,” she said.
Gartner said the move to clean the alleys gained momentum about seven years ago but is not completely finished. So far, the Downtown Association has removed many of the Dumpsters and replaced them with compactors; one compactor replaces six to seven Dumpsters. The project saves the city about $6,000 annually in solid-waste-disposal costs.
It takes more than just Dumpster replacement, however, to make a difference. It also takes people. And keeping the alleys clean is Danny Woods’ full-time job.
On a brisk Wednesday morning in the alley between the Tiger Barber Shop and Billiards, Woods patched uneven parts of the pavement with a cold mix that resembles chunks of melted tar.
Woods said the alleys are his primary responsibility and that he works with the street sweepers to make sure they are as clear as possible.
Charlotte Overby said the compactors make driving, or in Overby’s case, pedaling, down the alleys possible.
“I live on the east side of Stephens,” Overby said. “From Stephens, I can get almost all the way (via the alleys) to the credit union.”
She said riding her bike in the alleys is faster and safer than on the streets.
Business owner Arnie Fagan, however, said the alley maintenance was lacking during this winter’s rough weather.
Fagan, who owns Cool Stuff, said he fell while chipping at the 9 to 12 inches of ice that piled up because the street department didn’t clear the alley behind his store.
He said he understands the demands on the street department during extreme weather and said, “After everything is snow- and ice-free, I think that the alleys need to be a priority.”
Fagan said he called the street department to report the problem because the city is responsible for alleys that run east to west. North- and south-running alleys, on the other hand, are the responsibility of property owners.
Dennie Pendergrass, chief engineer of operations for the street department, said that it’s impossible to plow in some public alleys that but the department does put down salt during snow and ice. “It’s generally not a big problem,” he said.
The alleys provide a great deal of utility for many Columbia businesses.
Samuel Morse, an employee at the Peace Nook, pointed out that the store’s only handicapped-accessible entrance is through the alley. The store also receives deliveries via the alley every morning, and employees use that entrance to open the store.
Downtown Appliance employee Webster Jesse said the store unloads a lot of appliances through a north and south alley next to the business. He said part of his job responsibilities include clearing the alley.
Second Ward Councilman Chris Janku proposed at a City Council meeting that Columbia look into giving alleys individual names, as Jefferson City has done.
Janku said that because alleys are becoming more usable as entryways for businesses, naming alleys would allow delivery people and residents to understand where they are.
“It’s a matter of public safety,” he said. “If something happened and you needed to describe the alley, you would say it happened at Jones Alley.”
A subcommittee of the Special Business District Board has reviewed the idea and will present its report at the next scheduled board meeting.
“We hope for more business and community use of the alleys,” Janku said. “They would be more valuable to the community that way.”