Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Downtown Alley, Episode 1

No, this isn't a low-budget Salem version of the popular British costume drama, but a light-hearted survey of one of Salem's hidden public spaces: the alley running north from Ferry Street up to Center Street, between Commercial and Liberty.

I first "met" this alley back in the 1980's when I was in college. In learning the downtown street system, I frequently got confused and would miss the correct turn. I learned I could make up for this by taking these alleys. I remember noticing that some blocks had been made much more attractive by the addition of plantings, artwork, and public improvements. In a few places, businesses had taken it upon themselves to add interest and color.

Fast-forward to October 2012. I had some time to spare one weekend and decided to take some pictures of this alley from its beginning to its end. As a utility cyclist, I frequent the alleys downtown both as access to places hard to get to on the main streets, and as a way to avoid the noise and limited sight-lines of downtown traffic. While not perfect for cycling (they are all active alleys, still serving their business customers, and sometimes are blocked or end up being gathering spots for folks who would prefer not to be disturbed), the alleys of downtown Salem are part of my "ad hoc downtown cycling connectivity plan." It seemed right to spend some time appreciating them for their usefulness and the significant efforts made to give them interest and, well, style.

Alleys are places that most of us avoid or overlook. They are the literal "backdoor" of downtown. I think it took some courage and vision to decide--decades ago--that they were worth making both more versatile and attractive (I would enjoy learning more about the origins of this effort). These alleys are particularly interesting for the variety of treatments they employ. Each block has its own character and reveals something different about the era in which the improvements were made and the ideals inspiring them.

Here is a tour of the first block of this curious, creative, useful, and ignored asset to the Salem civic landscape.

Ferry to State

Across from what is now the Salem Convention Center, this alley commences as an opening in a modified brutalist facade, part of the adjacent parking structure. The other side is formed by a modern office building designed with elements meant (I think) to evoke earlier 20th century frontages. Sadly, it all remains quite cold, sterile, and bleak.

Immediately upon turning into this alley, one notices a couple of things: the fish sculpture overhead (in a sort of un-triumphal arch effect) and the curious sign prohibiting a lot of things...but not making it clear exactly where these activities are prohibited.

Well, you have to start somewhere, and one can pretty much only go up
 from concrete brutalism (even if painted).

So: None of this in the parking structure? In the alley? I'm thinking the former,
but I had my doubts for a few moments, and wondered if this little tour was
already over...

The decorative fish and the light-toned paint scheme set the theme for this block of the alley...which is the most "unified" of its four blocks. This wins the award for the most visually "clean" of the set, as well. The spare lower-level visuals help emphasize the energetic and colorful fish art overhead, which is really quite notable.

Flying fish?
These fish are not static; they move in the breeze and shimmer with reflected light, recalling the live (but endangered) creatures inspiring them. In the sun, glimmering pennants streak from the metallic "stream" onto the masonry "banks." It is an interesting treatment: sculpture in the air about living things in the water...both of which are in streams or channels conducting them along.

Even though the fish (which have names, it appears) nearest the street lights could use a cleaning, they have a vivacity and energy that works...but you have to go looking for them. One could easily miss all of this, hurrying through town in a car.

Further on, we come to the mid-block opening created by a parking lot on the left, and a passage way/ access drive on the right. This area is much more "congruent" with the over-all effect now that the Ladd & Bush bank building has been repainted in fresh, light colors. The old color pattern (wildly 1970's, to my taste) dampened the effect considerably. While most people naturally focus on this building's justly-famous cast iron frontages, the blind arcade that relieves this side of the building from utter dullness contributes to a sense of scale and (dare I say) drama in this space. On a sunny day, it is rather dramatic, actually. It looks a bit like the backdrop for an early Hollywood epic...

Just across the alley from this, though, is a completely different effect. The parking structure and the commercial buildings crowd in to each other, creating a complex pattern of shadows and lines. A sliver of sky allows a view of one of Salem's gems: the Deco masterpiece of the Capitol Center. The Cooke Stationery building (a venerable institution itself) can store its delivery van in this narrow space. Daylight-avoiding souls can use the walkway and gain access to Liberty. Somewhat dog-eared (or dog-used) plantings line the way. A one-way sign points in exactly the opposite direction to the way I'm biking and the fish are swimming. Lots of concrete and metal. It all seems intensely "urban," but it is still just downtown Salem.

The second half of the block continues the fish-and-light-paint theme. This sculpture installation also serves as the rigging for the street lights on the alley, further mixing art and practicality in a creative way. It is a festive finish, urging the viewer on to the next block, their shadows on the pavement recalling everything from sunny days in a shallow river to the deathly photographic negatives of Hiroshima. But, for today, I'm mostly thinking about pleasant things.

Along the way, of course, other things are happening. Under one's feet there are access points to the complex sub-surface goings-on in any city. The way in to this specialized world is usually marked by a manhole cover. These come in a variety of styles. Here is one with concentric rings and a loudly-proclaimed City of Salem provenance:

This is just one of several styles of manhole cover to be seen along this alley.
This is one way we make our mark over the long-haul, I suppose.

We take things like this for granted, passing them unthinkingly all the time. For cyclists, wet manhole covers are mostly just things to be avoided. But they form an unfussy part of the massively complex infrastructure upon which we all depend. Their humble positions belie their true significance to us.

The block comes to an end at State Street, one of downtown's most important thoroughfares, connecting the city's original life-blood (the riverfront) with the early commercial core, the historic First United Methodist Church (that used to flood most years, necessitating its 2nd floor sanctuary), Willamette University, the State Capitol, the State Supreme Court, and (via 12th) the main railway station in town. Along here, though, it is just a broad-ish commercial street lined with various older and newer structures that record a part of Salem's unrolling history.

Here is where the older pavers of the alleyway meet the new ones for the mid-block crosswalk connecting this section of the alley to the next. I'm glad the City went ahead and did this with care. It really looks nice and articulates the alley's significance (and the priority of cross-street traffic) well. For now, the two eras of pavers present quite a contrast...but that won't last for all that long in the traffic and weather conditions they will face.

Old meets new in the continuing saga of Salem...

All-in-all, this block is probably the most "artistic" of the bunch. A considerable amount of thought seems to have gone into it when originally re-built, and since then either someone has been continuing to keep it looking unified...or it has done so by what we might call a "happy accident." Either way, I'm glad for its whimsical and coordinated character.

I use this block quite often on my bike as a way to get to some retailers in this section of town while avoiding some of the more nasty traffic downtown. It does mean a short jaunt on the occasionally frantic Ferry street, but it also means "swimming with the fishes"--in a good way.


  1. Alleys are in! Here for comparison is a blog project devoted to alleys in Seattle and elsewhere.

    Unfortunately William Bragg deleted a bunch of his old blog posts, but he's still got several images from the alley in a flickr stream.

    (Does this mean you gave up on the bridges? I hope not!)

    1. SBOB, you amaze me. You must have a "Comprehensive Guide to Everything Really Cool on the Internet." The links are fascinating. Alleys have fascinated me since I was a kid, and I could not resist making use of some photos I took a few weeks ago.

      Don't worry about the bridges. I have a some pictures of the Shelton Ditch and Pringle Creek bridges near the hospital lined up for eventual use. I also hope to do some work on the Court Street footbridge. I'm just rather undisciplined, that's all.

      Glad you find all of this at least a bit interesting. I'm enjoying the opportunity to celebrate rather ordinary and taken-for-granted things.

  2. Did you see Mary Lou Zeek's piece in the paper today?!

    "If you are in a car, you probably only notice the street construction delays and the hassles of finding a parking place.

    When I think about cities that were born in an era before cars, what strikes me is that people took care to have interesting things to look at along the way....

    Imagine the alleys vibrant with art painted on the sides of the buildings and flowers and greenery hanging above. The alleys could make downtown so much more friendly to bicycles and pedestrians and we could make the alleys feel like a walking tour of an art installation."

  3. No, I hadn't...but I'm certainly delighted with her thoughts on the subject. It gets back to one of my central notions about "Upright Cycling," which is such cycling is largely possible only when communities prioritize human-centered activity, rather than machine-focused transactions.

    While not being "anti-machine" in and of itself, the mechanical metaphor for the cosmos, the human being, society, and just about everything else that has been dominant in our culture since the Newtonian revolution has gradually pushed human and spiritual categories to the brink in the pursuit of "the perfect machine."

    Art, faith, the Creation, long-term human relationships, and mystery have all become the enemy of the machine-as-ideal metaphor, leading to a society that replaces art with advertising, faith with ideology, Creation with synthetic "lifestyles," long-term relationships with single-point and anonymous transactions, and mystery with materialism. I see it as being all of a piece, with no one thread being severable from the rest.

    To me, such little things as alleys, pedestrian bridges (and associated improvements), and how we take time out from "work" to "live" are vital parts of the tapestry. I'm glad to hear and see others with similar points of view, as I can at times feel a bit alone in this!