Alleytown in Washington, D.C.
Photos courtesy of the Estate of Godfrey Frankel/Hemphill Fine Arts. Originally from In The Alleys by Godfrey Frankel - Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995
In 1992, a reporter named Laura Goldstein was working at the Washington Post and received an assignment to track down an amateur photographer who shot images of crippling poverty on the city’s southwest side. Then 79, Godfrey Frankel had lived a full life and spent most of it as a social worker, though he had never really found the time to pursue his passion for photography as a career. Once Ms. Goldstein found Mr. Frankel, he began to dig through the massive collection of negatives that he had stored in his basement.
In 1943, Godfrey was drawn to the southwest side because of its poverty, its alleys, and the isolation of its communities. He explained that they were “hidden neighborhoods, tucked back behind broad city streets, where people crowded into ramshackle dwellings that lacked even the most basic amenities—electricity, heat, running water.” He was also delighted to be “discovered” at such an old age. Soon, Goldstein and Frankel were hitting the bricks, interviewing people who had lived in those same alleys that were photographed back in 1943. The article was titled “Street Kids,” and published on December 20, 1992.
Residents of Southwest, also known as “The Island,” were often called “alley rats” by outsiders. At the time, nearly 10,000 people called these alleys home, even though the conditions were not ideal. Dwellings faced alleys, as opposed to tree-lined streets with sidewalks, and were typically two stories high, dark, cramped, and built from wood or brick. Most had no electricity, central heating, or indoor plumbing. Wood stoves and outhouses were a common sight. Though the photos seem to depict urban blight, former residents talked with pride about a tight-knit community that resembled a small town. On Saturday nights the sounds of people drinking and blues music filled the alleys. It was a close neighborhood, and “no one” locked their doors. One resident noted that it was “because no one had anything to steal,” and another stated that they didn’t even know what a door key was until they were 16 years old.
Eventually, misguided housing reformers and cash-hungry developers began to take notice. The wrecking balls came in the 1950s.