There’s no place like home, especially when it’s an island that’s full of untapped treasures.
If you’ve visited Galveston, you’ve probably passed right by its alleys and back buildings without giving it much thought. After all, the more stately homes are out front on the main street. I mean, who wants to spend time in an alley, right?
It’s definitely worth the effort, though, as Ellen Beasley points out in her book, “The Alleys and Back Buildings of Galveston: An Architectural and Social History.” (April 2007/ Texas A&M University Press).
Beasley puts it like this:
Alleys and back buildings have been largely overlooked in studies of the American urban environment. And yet, rental alley houses, servant and slave quarters, carriage houses, stables, and other secondary structures have lined the alleys and filled the backyards of Galveston since its early days as a growing port city on the upper Texas Gulf Coast.
Like their counterparts in other cities, these buildings and their inhabitants have had a profound visual, physical, and social impact on the history and development of Galveston.
Growing up on the island, alleys were the perfect exploring grounds for an inquisitive kid on a bicycle like me. It’s also where most of my friends lived, and we had big fun.
Riding with my buddies, I learned all the neighborhood perks – the yards with the biggest plum trees and pecans. The alley was also the spot for a good pickup football game – and later, other activities.
Fast-forward, if you will, to Lovenberg Junior High School (the campus at 39th and Seawall was demolished in the mid-1980s).
A fight would invariably brew between a few hot-tempered students, but unlike today, they didn’t end in a knifing or even worse, a fatal shooting.
Back then, as word of a fight spread through the hallways, the fight time was arranged – it was usually right after school. The battleground was always the alley right down from the school.
No one got maimed or killed, because if any of the combatants picked up something to fight with, the crowd would take it away. It had to be a good, clean duke-it-out fight, or it didn’t happen at all.
At the turn of the century, Galveston’s alleys were an important avenue for commerce, according to “Engines of our Ingenuity,” a radio program of the University of Houston's College of Engineering.
Radio host John H. Leinhard shared his experience with alleys on the radio show on KUHF (Houston Public Media).
When I was kid, regular deliveries were made from the alley –- coal for the coal chute, groceries. Ice for our ice box came down the alley on a horse-drawn truck. The garage faced into the alley.
Walk the alleys of Galveston today, and you'll find a stunning blur of architectural style – shotgun houses, slim two-story buildings that house a garage below and a family above.
We have statistics from 1900 -- the year the great hurricane struck Galveston and killed some 8000 people. Three out of four of the thousand alley dwellers were black at the time, the rest white. A few of the present alley houses were ones that survived the storm and were jacked up when Galveston built a seawall and raised the ground level eight feet.
No one has to tell me how cool Galveston’s alleys are. I am privileged to have learned that first-hand.