Almost every day I walk to the corner coffee shop along Dog Alley. It is a slender piece of land, only a block in length and maybe 15 feet wide. It rests in the heart of Phoenix. It is mostly hidden from the rest of the world as most alleys are. It is trashy and unkempt. Some might call it ugly. But whatever it is, Dog Alley tells me more about the city I live in than the pretentious dwellings and offices on its flanks. And I think it tells me a lot about this country we call America.
I began calling it Dog Alley about a year ago. There are four or five dogs along the way that used to go berserk every time I passed. They barked frantically and one or two even growled. Perhaps I flatter myself in saying they are no longer my enemies. It’s the music. I whistle every time they come to the fence. Tweet, tweet, tweet, TWEET, or something like that. This morning when I passed in the sultry air of 90 degree heat and heard nothing, I wondered if it was my training that led to the silence. Or was it just too hot to bark?
The Alley is an eyesore for sure. Utility poles and hanging wires. The paved surface is dotted with holes and unseemly patches. And some days it smells of rotting food. Trash barrels line one side for weekly pickup by the noisy, dust-belching garbage trucks. Blue lids for recyclables, black for sacked food and other junk. Most are dented from tough-love by the trucks. Gang graffiti covers some barrels and the walls beside them. Weeds grow a foot high on one side. They struggle for life amid wind-blown cardboard boxes.
The historic neighborhood that lies to the south complains about the alleys as pathways for crime and vandalism . Burglaries frequent the area. Residents stew over the constant drift of dumpster-divers, mostly homeless people trying to survive in this land of desert sunshine and Republican cold hearts.
Not long ago there was talk in this neighborhood of doing away with Dog Alley and all the others. The City, which owns the alleys, would seal them off from public use. But, alas, residents would be asked to set the garbage barrels in front of their houses once a week. This did not go over well. It would look awful. And think of those smelly garbage trucks rumbling down the street! So Dog Alley survived. Property values and image were more important than crime.
Dog Alley could be a neighborhood shortcut to the coffee shop and nearby restaurants. But it is a lonely place, this alley. In the months I’ve traveled it, I have seen only nine people there and rarely a vehicle.
I was encouraged when a wary family of four walked in from the west. A man, a woman and two children. But that was a long time ago. I saw three giggling young girls recently coming through with dogs on leashes. Then there was the dumpster-diver earlier in the summer. I said, hi, but he did not reply. And just this week, two male office workers followed me down toward the coffee shop at noon hour. Both were talking into mobile phones, neither visually taking in this unusual environment.
Dog Alley, I predict, will not change soon. The reasons are clear. Fear and an aversion to exercise. Most Americans will drive a block rather than walk it. And many Americans are afraid of their shadows. They want scripted lives. The unexpected makes them shiver. You never know who or what will turn up in an alley.
I hope to write more about Dog Alley from time to time. It seems almost a natural world, a world left to its own devices. No one cares what happens in the hidden corners. Out of sight, out of mind. Yet Dog Alley is a litmus test. Like toilets in a restaurant. Dirty urinal, dirty kitchen.
I have a dream of my own. I see a day when Dog Alley will be a parkway with trees, a curving path lined with tall sunflowers. No poles and underground electrical wiring. A place where friendly neighbors pass in the evenings. And a place where dogs are a lot less frightened and angry.