Spotlight: Are SLC Alleys set for a comeback?

Figure 2 Plum Alley around 1910 - Courtesy of Utah Historical Society

One hundred years ago, Salt Lake City’s Plum Alley was a vital and vibrant part of life in downtown. It was the bustling heart of Chinatown and the home of the area’s Chinese residents.  Long and narrow, the alley was’s peppered with restaurants, grocery stores and —  on its seedier side — gambling establishments and opium dens.  

At the joss house, residents worshipped Chinese gods with food offerings and at the nearby Bing Kong Tong, they sought help finding jobs and legal services. 

Those days are long gone now — lost to history and the shifting ideas about cities should change and grow. 

The same is true for more than 1,000 alleys that are sprinkled throughout  neighborhoods across Salt Lake City, said David Jones, the Public Way Coordination Program Manager in CAN’s Engineering Division.

Many of Salt Lake City’s 1,400 alleys are in disrepair. Photo courtesy of SLC Engineering Division.

Once relied on by businesses and families for deliveries of things like milk and coal, their use went out of fashion as more cars took to city streets, Jones said. 

But Salt Lake City’s alleys might be poised for a comeback.

An Engineering Division survey project now underway will identify each alley across the city and determine whether any can be improved, repaired and reimagined.

And it’s a pretty big job.

“We estimate there are approximately 1400 alleyways in the City or 92 miles,” Jones said. “Of those, 47 miles are designated as public with the remaining alleyways classified as private, mixed, or unknown.”

The project was prompted by an increasing number of calls from residents whose questions alerted city decision-makers to  safety concerns, ownership questions and the need for maintenance, he said. 

Some have asked the alleys be closed. Others have used them “unofficially” to build fences or other structures and vegetable garden boxes, Jones said. More recently, a resident asked for permission to install a hot tub in the alley behind their home, he added. 

Once the survey is complete, the Engineering Division will recommend a list of alleys that are good candidates for repair and improvements — projects that will require support and funding from the City. 

“My hope is that we fix up the alleys so they are utilized by residents again,” City Engineer Matt Cassell said. “That could create a host of opportunities for reimagining our streets in some parts of the city. Restoring alley parking, for example, could free us spake for uses like bike lanes and wider sidewalks.” 

In the meantime the Engineering and the Transportation divisions have received $200,000 in grant seed funding for the alley project. Discussions about  a long-range strategy for revitalizing the forgotten thoroughfares are now underway.

“We expect that with accurate data, planning and funding we can reclaim these neglected spaces and create a more usable, safe and serviceable network of urban corridors within the City,” Jones said.

Salt Lake City’s Plum Alley around 1910. Photo courtesy of the Utah State Historical Society.

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