Small streets have been a part of Baltimore since the 1700s, when industry and commerce first clustered around the harbor. They continued to be an integral part of the expanding city until around 1920. During that time, small streets provided affordable housing for working class families close to jobs. In recent decades, the small streets of Baltimore have enjoyed a renaissance, especially those located near the harbor. While many houses have been lovingly preserved and restored in Baltimore by young professionals and small families, new small streets have unfortunately not been built in many decades due to a lag in the change of public perception and misguided zoning regulations.
Elfrith’s Alley in Philadelphia is both America’s oldest residential street and one of the country’s most beautiful small streets. Aside from this National Historic Landmark, Philadelphia has a number of neighborhoods with small streets. The love small streets residents have for their streets and neighborhoods was made clear when a group of concerned citizens formed the Philadelphia Society of Small Streets in March of 2011. Their group is dedicated to the preservation, repair, and restoration of Philadelphia’s small historic streets. Their current project is saving a delightfully charming small street from privatization. The group is also working toward the repair of a block of another historic small street.
Before our nation’s capital was founded, the community of Georgetown alone occupied the eastern bank of the Potomac River. As in other 18th century American towns and cities, Georgetown housed its working class families in rowhouses on small streets. Current residents of Georgetown’s small streets show great pride in their compact, unique urban environments and take meticulous care of their homes.
When Pierre Charles L’Enfant laid out his baroque plan for the streets of Washington, his large-block design encouraged infill in the form of mid-block alley housing. As the city grew, it created mixed-income income blocks and neighborhoods by incorporating small streets lined with small rowhouses. In the late 1800s, over 17,000 people, or eleven percent of Washington DC’s population, lived in alley housing.
The alley houses came under threat around the turn of the 20th century. Many members of the upper class sought to demolish the small streets and associated housing, although their efforts had much to do with racism in addition to sincere concern. Few examples of small streets still remain, and small streets are illegal today. However, considering Washington’s difficulties with providing affordable housing, the time is now to legalize family-oriented small streets.