Opinion: What if Dally was Daily?

Every September, the Saturday after Labor Day, Detroiters gather in the alleys of the North Cass Corridor for a beloved annual tradition called Dally in the Alley.

For one day a year, these hidden passageways (normally reserved for auto storage and garbage) come alive with art, food, music and people. And every year, we think to ourselves: What if this single event was an everyday experience? Not just a street fair, but a walkable alley district?

Inspired by both the Dally and a groundswell of recent alley-oriented activity, this idea of an alley district feels closer to a real possibility than ever before. The seed was planted with the Green Alley between Motor City Brewing Works and the Green Garage, which raised the bar for alleys everywhere. Then came Alley Wine, now in pre-construction mode a few blocks south. Add to that Midtown Detroit Inc.'s recent announcement that four more green alleys are on the way, and we've got ourselves the makings of something bigger here.

Is it possible that it's only a matter of time -- and some thoughtful community design and planning -- for a totally unique Detroit district to take shape?

Hey, we can dream. And maybe it's time to dream aloud in case some of you are dreaming the same thing, too. Who knows, maybe our urban imaginations look kinda, sorta the same.

An Alley District, Imagined

The Alley District of our dreams is a community located on the footprint of the Dally festival, between 2nd and 3rd Avenues, and extending further south and east. The network of alleys is already here -- some stretches might need some extending and re-connecting, but the basic web of pathways is in place, like desire lines criss-crossing through the neighborhood.

The Alley District draws upon elements of some of our favorite urban places around the globe, but is uniquely, utterly Detroit.

How so? Well, alleys are home to garages -- a humble building type we don't normally think of as "iconic" architecturally-speaking, but in fact has played a pivotal role in our city's history. From garage tinkerers like Henry Ford (who built his first Quadricycle in a shed behind his house), to garage recording studios like Motown's "Studio A" (affectionately called the "snake pit"), to garage rockers like Iggy Pop and Jack White, some of our greatest Detroit inventions and exports were born in modest, backlot spaces just like these.

So why not celebrate our garages and alleys as cradles of Detroit innovation? These are places where sparks fly, where people practice ideas, where we get dirty. And they're small -- perfectly sized to house the earliest incarnations of ingenuity before they grow into bigger warehouses and factories, or take center stage to rock the world.

As in many neighborhoods throughout Detroit, we have a lot of little garages scattered about the Cass Corridor, many of them hiding behind overgrown weeds and overflowing dumpsters. But if you squint your eyes just enough (not too much to sanitize the soul out of the place, but just enough to tidy up the trash and patch the potholes), it's not hard to envision these spaces humming with activity.

So, imagine: A constellation of garages as itsy-bitsy, micro-studios, workshops and stalls for makers and vendors of all kinds (cobblers, carpenters, candlestick makers). Then imagine them linked together by a network of pedestrian pathways.

See it? Now put yourself on a pathway in the middle of a city block, and do a little 360 degree spin to survey the scene: street art and greenspace, electric wires and laundry lines, back porches and fire escapes, cafe tables and vendor carts, bike racks and string lights -- the stuff of real urban life.

Sound good? We'll keep going:

Here in the Alley District, people would meander mostly by foot, hugged by buildings and backyards on both sides. And this hyper-intimate scale would be so completely unique and refreshing in a city where -- let's be real -- everything is much too wide. Grand radial avenues like Woodward and Michigan and Gratiot are great for driving (or riding a light rail line), but not so much for walking. They're difficult to cross by foot if all you want to do is duck inside somewhere quickly, then hop to the next spot.

But stroll through an alley in the Corridor, and the scale feels just right. Narrow, intimate, human-sized -- much closer in proportion to places like the Latin Quarter in Paris, or the French Quarter in New Orleans, or Kensington Market in Toronto. These are places where you ditch your car and just walk, because you WANT to.

Which brings us to the part some will loathe, but others will love: This fictional Alley District is a largely car-free zone. Residents can opt-in to a collective parking situation nearby, freeing up the alleys to become walkways instead of driveways. Bikes and scooters and carts will move goods within the district, with cars staying outside, on the perimeter.

Radical for Detroit? Yeah, that's the point.

No doubt, some might regard this as an inconvenience at first, but over time, it would become a point of pride for area residents. "I live in the Alley District" would be like saying "I choose to live a motor 'lite' life in the Motor City." Many local residents already do this, so defining the district would simply formalize a lifestyle already being lived here.

Which brings us to another consideration -- striking that delicate balance between community and destination. When we close our eyes and imagine the Alley District, it's both: a home for artists and makers, and a public gathering place for the wider world to explore and enjoy. What residents would forsake in privacy, they would gain in energy and vitality. Not a fully amped-up Dally in the Alley energy (too much for everyday life!) -- but a nice buzz of human activity.

Other keys to a successful Alley District: Public art, lots of it. Places to sit, lots of them. (And not that matchy-matchy modern street furniture you find in master-planned districts, but a random assortment of hand-crafted and reclaimed fixtures.) Green screens everywhere -- every surface sprouting flora. Nooks and crannies for ad-hoc performances -- a dude with a banjo, a poet with a verse -- little make-shift stages scattered about.

And garbage -- yes, garbage -- in its place! No one's interested in Disney-fying the Cass Corridor. In fact, perhaps we'll install a kill-switch if the place gets too precious and pristine.

Next Steps? Keep Dreaming

So this is a rough sketch -- the beginning of a conversation. Can you see it? Better yet, can you smell it? The aroma of laundry and compost, beer and beignets. Mmmm.

If you're not down with our daydream, no worries -- we have ZERO dollars to build it. And even if we did, we wouldn't dare try. (Talk about messing up a place!) This stuff should manifest organically, gradually, through a million conversations over time.

Instead, think of it like this: an idea that we're 100 percent sure is not original. Ponder it, chew on it, put your own spin on it. And if you happen to bump into a few dollars or hands to help green some pathways, consider directing them to the alleyways in the North Cass neighborhood. Maybe, eventually, a few more stretches could sprout, connect and grow into a district.

Crazier things have happened...

Claire Nelson and Francis Grunow are comrades and co-conspirators of the Cass Corridor. A graduate of Cass Technical High School, Grunow is a founding member of the Corridors Alliance, the Cass Corridor Museum, and the Marche du Nain Rouge.

This post is dedicated with love to the amazing volunteers of the North Cass Corridor Union who produce the annual Dally in the Alley, and to fellow urban daydreamer, Joseph Uhl.

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.