MS. REBECCA SHEIR
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
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
And inside is our walk-in closet.
But she's no agent, and the house is anything but typical.
And underneath our bed pulls out.
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.
So you can see that we very well prepare our kids for dorm life.
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.
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.
But by the time Mayer bought the building in the late 1970s, it was more like a...
MR. ALEX MAYER
Warzone. The building had the windows open, doors missing and people were just throwing their trash inside the building.
So, when Klein moved in in the '80s, Mayer was living in a trailer, knee-deep in renovations.
I moved into an Airstream that was parked in the building. It was a true test of compatibility.
But if life inside the building was challenging, the outside was even tougher.
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.
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.
Sometimes people just couldn't find us. And sometimes that was just fine. And other times you do want to be found.
But Klein says she loved living in the alley.
It was magical because here I was in this little matrix of alleys surrounded by these historic buildings.
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
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.
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.
"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."
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.
So it was sort of a self-elimination process.
And yet despite those changes there were still those who chose to stay.
There was a sense of community in these alleys that people said they wouldn't give up for anything.
In fact, Phyllis Klein says it's that community, full of artists and activists that's helped make alley life so rewarding.
We made great gains. We got proper lighting. We got signage. We're finally on the D.C. map.
Meanwhile her daughter, 18 year-old Alexa Klein-Mayer says the tight quarters just brought the family closer together.
MS. ALEXA KLEIN-MAYER
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.
And as you can imagine, her parents say that's right up their alley. I'm Jessica Gould.
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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