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

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Phyllis Klein and Alex Mayer raised two daughters in a small alley dwelling near U Street.
Jessica Gould
Phyllis Klein and Alex Mayer raised two daughters in a small alley dwelling near U Street.

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.

"Inside is our walk-in closet," she says.

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 living space, 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 we very well prepare our kids for dorm life," Klein says.

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 was a smokehouse where they made sausages," she says. "I'm told that Dupont Circle was a meat market in the original sense."

But Mayer says that, by the time he bought the building in the late 1970s, the lot looked more like a "warzone."

"The windows were open, the doors were gone, and people were throwing their trash inside the building," he says. Later, he learned that the building had survived five fires.

So, when Klein moved in in the '80s, Mayer was living in a trailer, knee-deep in renovations that would transform the space into an artist's studio and apartment.

I moved into an Airstream that was parked in the building;," Klein recalls. "It was a true test of compatibility."

But if life inside the building was challenging, life outside was even tougher. "There were crimes that would happen right under our window because the criminals thought we were in an abandoned building," she says. "People would bring stolen cars back here and strip them. There was drug dealing, prostitution."

Plus, she says, poor drainage caused water to rush down the alley during heavy rains. "You sort of felt like you were riding in a boat more than driving in a car," she says. And 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 couldn't find us," she says. "And sometimes that was just fine. And sometimes you did 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," she says.

For generations, D.C.'s alley dwellers have lived off the grid and behind the scenes. Kim Williams, with the city's preservation office, is conducting a survey of the stables, smokehouses and other structures that dot D.C. alleys in an effort to help guide future development.

"In general, the city was not heavily populated until the Civil War," she says. "So all of a sudden, the density increased, and the possibility of housing became limited."

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:

"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. Night with its dark shadows accentuates the strangeness of the scene. .... A group of people are seen playing together roughly. A cheap phonograph nearby rasps out a merry ditty. The shrill cries of children pierce the air as the ragged, dirty youngsters dart about amongst their elders. Two lads with notably large feet and broken shoes dance skillfully while a slovenly fat woman picks her guitar. From the little mission in the alley parlor comes occasionally a wail, primitive chanting. An uncouth black man lounges up to a buxom woman and hugs her."

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. And yet, she says, there were still those who chose to stay.

"There was a sense of community in these alleys that these people said they wouldn't give up for anything," she says.

For example, Klein says she loved living among a tight-knit community of artists, and she says the affordable alley dwelling gave her the flexibility to stay home with her two daughters.

"It afforded me the freedom to raise my family," she says.

Meanwhile, over the years, she says she and her neighbors were able to improve life in the alley.

"We made great gains," she says. "We got the alley surface redone so now we have proper drainage. We got signage. We got the alleys named. We're finally on the D.C. map."

And she's still pushing to protect the alley now that a large new apartment building is rising directly in front of her home.

"There's so much potential in the alleys," she says. "Where the kids play, where people recreate, there's a lot that can be done in alleys that can't be done in the frontage. I just hope we can preserve what we have."

After all, her daughter, 18 year-old Alexa Klein-Mayer says the tight quarters just brought the family closer together.

"I can't get away with anything," says Klein-Mayer. "Our house is so small that my parents always know what's going on with me. And I always know what's going on with them. I think I feel a lot more connected with them because we live in such a close space."

And her parents say that's right up their alley.

[Music: "Alley Cat" by Bent Fabric from Your Hit Parade - '60s Instrumentals - Take Two]

Photos: D.C.'s Alley Dwellers


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