Metro, Featured Column

The Public Alley 439 Effect

When I darted into Public Alley 439, it was still raining.  

Although this made logical sense—showers had broken out all over the city—I was still shocked that the unpleasantly icy droplets continued to assault my exposed skin. As always, I should have just worn long sleeves.     

Wrinkling my nose in annoyance and clutching my grocery bags closer to my body, I decided to continue making my way down the alley, it was, after all, better than weaving through the crowds of people on Boylston St.  

I don’t know if you really know Public Alley 439, but you’ve probably passed it countless times. Wedged in between the big-name streets of Newbury and Boylston, Public Alley 439 can serve as a much needed escape from the crowds, but the unbroken row of dumpsters lining the alley tend to deter people from using it as a shortcut.

The road of the alleyway is usually crusted with a mysterious layer thick of rich-brown dirt—a strange sight in a city where dirt tends to stay in specific places—and cigarette butts lay scattered across the ground like a strange kind of trail. Instead of flowers or trees, fragile-looking weeds poke their way through cracks in the asphalt, and withered stands of ivy cling to the building walls. Parked cars line the parking spaces along the alley, and discarded furniture, like a fraying purple couch, lie alongside the dumpsters. The back doors of the many restaurants along Boylston, almost all of which open into the alley, tend to hang open, letting fresh air into the hectic kitchens, and giving a glimpse of the action that goes on behind the scenes.

There is graffiti in Public Alley 439, but it isn’t the glamorous and flashy kind that you might see proudly displayed throughout the city. It is crudely painted numbers claiming dumpsters and doors as the property of a specific address. There aren’t any ads back in the alley either—no signs, no posters plastered up on the brick walls, a true sign that no one really expects people to wander down Public Alley 439.

And for the most part, they don’t.

Public Alley 439 is a fairly deserted place, meaning that you can be completely alone in one of the most crowded areas of downtown Boston. It’s a strange phenomenon. Depending on the time of day that you’re passing through the alley, the isolation can feel somewhat eerie and unnatural, but as I walked down the alley in the late afternoon, with the slate-colored daylight filtering through the clouds, it was actually something closer to fascinating.

Despite the rain, there were people in Public Alley 439, one or two walking down the pavement like me, and few interspersed amongst the open spaces between a pair of dumpsters. Although I wasn’t surprised to see them, I was slightly shocked once I started looking their faces. You see, these people had their guards down, a rare sight to see in a city. You might not even notice that you do it, but in a city, when you are constantly surrounded by people who don’t really care about you—let along have your best interest in mind. You tend to put up a sort of mask as you weave through the streets. It will probably melt away when you are with friends, but when you’re alone your face closes off, preventing anyone from seeing something that might be vulnerable. It’s a defense mechanism.

But the faces of the people in the alley were open, curiously looking at me as I walked by, or making strange faces as they zoned out and stared with concentration at a speck on the ground. Some leaned against the grimy brick walls with loose limbs and a cigarette dangling between their fingers, and none of them were looked at their phones. Their faces were softer, their eyes were brighter and unafraid to meet your glance. The people loitering in Public Alley 439 seemed completely themselves in this narrow space that released them from the city’s intense gaze.

Perhaps all alleys provide this little reprieve, or maybe it’s just a select few. But if you happen to pass Public Alley 439 I would recommend taking a peek inside—who knows what you just might see.

Featured Image by Madeleine D’Angelo/Heights Editor

September 15, 2017