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The Alleys of Our Youthalley.jpg

by Al Roach

I had a disadvantaged childhood. What's the use of trying to conceal it? I admit it frankly. And every one of my friends was similarly deprived.

We attended no antiseptic daycare centres, we were not driven to school on rainy days, we swam in no ceramic-tiled swimming pools, we flew to no vacations in Switzerland, we did not live in air-conditioned homes, we had no manicured lawns to keep off of.

We had no organized little leagues and no expensive tax supported playgrounds, we rode no $2,000 ten-speed Pugeots, we owned no record collections of Led Zeppelin, we ate no store-bought cookies.

We were deprived. We spent long leisurely summer days building rafts on the Detroit River's bank and sailing them down the weed-infested shoreline. We spent innumerable hours riding shunting boxcars in railway yards. We built tree houses in the old oak tree on the spare lot down the street.

And we played in the alleys of Walkerville.

The term "suburbia" was not yet, thank God, even an aberration in a developer's mind. Everyone lived downtown. We lived on elm and maple-lined streets. Never far away were the streetcars, the factories, the empty warehouses, the abandoned frame homes of the Depression, and the dairies with stables filled with magnificent Percherons and the pungent odour of manure.

And never far away were the alleys.

At the foot of every backyard was a high unpainted board fence. And behind the fence was the alley: the centre of all of our social activities. The streets were for the adults. For our parents, for the policeman, the school teacher, the neighbourhood banker and the corner druggist.

The alleys were for us.

They were dirty. They contained garbage and branches and ashes. They were invariably sprinkled with broken glass. They were inhabited by scrawny alley cats and lean mongrels gnawing on fly-covered bones.

And rats. Big, bold, voracious, flea-infected rats. In short, one brief glance at our alleys would have brought an instant attack of apoplexy to any social worker (had there been any).

But our alleys were an integral part of our lives. In them on long summer evenings we played hide-and-go-seek, run-my-sheepy-run, red light, tag and hop-scotch. We rollerskated there and we raced our second-hand C.C.M.'s wildly from alley to alley in hectic rip-roaring contests of fox and hounds.

Our alleys led to the large garbage bins behind the factories where we scrounged for stamps, broken tools, almost empty paint cans ("Hey, this red will be jim-dandy for my soap-box racer!"}, pieces of rope, broom handles, rusty razor blades, empty jars, almost straight nails and pop bottles worth two cents each. The treasure trove of youth.

And down our Walkerville alleys rode the neighbourhood rag man blowing his squeaky tin horn. On his rickety grey wagon pulled by a starving bag of bones, listlessly clip-clopping along. A wagon filled with old orange boxes, piles of newspapers and nondescript rags. A guy who haggled us down to four cents for the Model-T tire we had previously used as a yard swing.

True, we had none of the amenities, none of the luxuries, none of the opulence of the 1990's. But then we had none of the consequent frustrations, neuroses and vandalism which bedevil our society today. Just the odd overturned garbage can or raid on a pear tree. You know.

The late Ernie Atkinson, Windsor Star printer, city controller, great guy and roadside philosopher once told me why children no longer play duck-on-the-rock. "Heck, Al", he said, "the kids don't play it because you can't pay $10 for a rock."

I think Ernie had something there. But I think there's one other factor. The kids don't play duck-on-the-rock because there aren't any alleys to play in. You can't heave rocks at a tin can in Dieppe Park. The cops would haul you off to the slammer.

If I were a city planner today I know what I'd do for the children. I'd plan housing developments which include rivers and railway tracks and factories and old oak trees and street cars and abandoned frame homes and empty warehouses and dairies with magnificent Percherons and the pungent odor of manure.

And alleys.

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