D.c.'s Alley Dwellers Live In The Heart Of It All (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

Transcripts

D.C.'s Alley Dwellers Live In The Heart Of It All, Out Of Sight

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:02
Okay, we move up from Q Street now to U Street to meet some rather distinctive resident of Washington D.C. Its alley dwellers. D.C. actually has tiny alleys scattered all across the city and they're full of these old warehouse, former stables and converted carriage houses that people call home. This kind of life can bring some interesting challenges as well as surprising perks. As the District embarks on a survey of alley dwellings, Jessica Gould checks in with one family in the U Street corridor who has made a home in an unlikely place.

MS. JESSICA GOULD

00:00:38
With her tidy blond hair and whisper of a voice, Phyllis Klein seems a bit like a real estate agent giving a typical house tour.

MS. PHYLLIS KLEIN

00:00:46
And inside is our walk-in closet.

GOULD

00:00:48
But she's no agent, and the house is anything but typical.

KLEIN

00:00:52
And underneath our bed pulls out.

GOULD

00:00:55
That's right. The bed pulls out from a hole carved underneath the closet. And the bathroom is a former chimney. In fact, the whole apartment, including the galley kitchen with a salvaged stove, and the bunk beds where Klein's daughters sleep, is only one room, and about 650 square feet.

KLEIN

00:01:14
So you can see that we very well prepare our kids for dorm life.

GOULD

00:01:17
For the past two decades, Klein and her husband, artist Alex Mayer, have raised their two daughters in a tiny alley dwelling off U Street, not far from DuPont Circle.

KLEIN

00:01:27
Originally, it had been a smokehouse where they actually made sausages. I'm told that DuPont Circle was a meat market in the original sense.

GOULD

00:01:36
But by the time Mayer bought the building in the late 1970s, it was more like a...

MR. ALEX MAYER

00:01:41
Warzone. The building had the windows open, doors missing and people were just throwing their trash inside the building.

GOULD

00:01:49
So, when Klein moved in in the '80s, Mayer was living in a trailer, knee-deep in renovations.

KLEIN

00:01:55
I moved into an Airstream that was parked in the building. It was a true test of compatibility.

GOULD

00:02:01
But if life inside the building was challenging, the outside was even tougher.

KLEIN

00:02:06
There were crimes that would happen right under our window because the criminals thought that we were in an abandoned building. People would bring stolen cars back here and strip them and there was drug dealings, there was prostitution. There were other crimes.

GOULD

00:02:17
Plus, she says, without a precise address or even a street name it could be hard for friends to stop by or just get the mail.

KLEIN

00:02:25
Sometimes people just couldn't find us. And sometimes that was just fine. And other times you do want to be found.

GOULD

00:02:31
But Klein says she loved living in the alley.

KLEIN

00:02:34
It was magical because here I was in this little matrix of alleys surrounded by these historic buildings.

GOULD

00:02:40
For generations, D.C.'s alley dwellers have lived off the grid and behind the scenes. Kim Williams is with the city's preservation office, is conducting a survey of the stables, smokehouses and other structures that dot D.C. alleys.

MS. KIM WILLIAMS

00:02:55
The city was not heavily populated up until the Civil War but there was an increase in population about that time. The possibility of housing became limited so they were looking for new places to live and so people started using the alleys for more affordable, residential possibilities.

GOULD

00:03:12
In 1909, a man named Charles Weller spent a month documenting life in Blagden Alley. But Williams says his study painted a problematic portrait of the predominantly black community there. Here's Williams reading Weller's book.

WILLIAMS

00:03:26
"It is with some misgivings that one leaves the well-lighted outer streets with their impressive residences, and turns into a narrow passageway where he must walk by faith not sight. The shrill cries of children pierce the air as the ragged, dirty youngsters dart about. Two lads with notably large feet and broken shoes dance skillfully while a slovenly fat woman picks her guitar."

GOULD

00:03:48
Weller's study galvanized the local slum-clearing movement, which was championed by first ladies Ellen Wilson and Eleanor Roosevelt. But Williams says it was the streetcar and the automobile that really drove most people away from the alleys, and sometimes out of the city altogether.

WILLIAMS

00:04:04
So it was sort of a self-elimination process.

GOULD

00:04:07
And yet despite those changes there were still those who chose to stay.

WILLIAMS

00:04:11
There was a sense of community in these alleys that people said they wouldn't give up for anything.

GOULD

00:04:16
In fact, Phyllis Klein says it's that community, full of artists and activists that's helped make alley life so rewarding.

KLEIN

00:04:24
We made great gains. We got proper lighting. We got signage. We're finally on the D.C. map.

GOULD

00:04:30
Meanwhile her daughter, 18 year-old Alexa Klein-Mayer says the tight quarters just brought the family closer together.

MS. ALEXA KLEIN-MAYER

00:04:37
I think I feel a lot more comfortable with my parents and a lot more connected with them because we live in such a close space and we're around each other all the time.

GOULD

00:04:46
And as you can imagine, her parents say that's right up their alley. I'm Jessica Gould.

SHEIR

00:04:56
To check out photos of D.C.'s alley dwellings, including that bed in the Klein-Mayer house that's stored in a hole under the closet, head to our website, metroconnection.org.
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