Most people’s instincts are to avoid alleys. At least in fiction and film, nothing good ever comes from taking a wrong turn into one.
But when it’s the opening of a new coffee shop in an old District alley way, you can’t keep me away.
Saturday morning I ventured into Blagden Alley in the historic Shaw neighborhood for a first taste of La Colombe. It’s a trailblazing coffee company from Philadelphia, with cafes also in New York, Chicago, and Seoul. They’ve recently been supplying coffee to some notable D.C. restaurants, and have finally opened an outpost here in the District.
La Colombe is housed in a building that’s had many former lives, from a stable to an auto repair shop. But its current incarnation fits right in with the eclectic mix of restaurants, supper clubs, and artist studios that have recently sprung up there.
While most of these businesses are new additions, Blagden Alley and the adjoining Naylor Court provide a glimpse into the city’s past. You can still see the stables, carriage houses, and shops situated behind the grand rowhouses fronting L’Enfant’s wide streets.
The majority of the alleys in D.C.’s original, downtown core were filled in long ago as valuable office real estate. You have to venture into the city’s residential neighborhoods – like Capitol Hill, Logan Circle, and Shaw – to find the few remaining alley spaces and step back in time.
Blagden Alley and Naylor Court are among the best preserved, showing how these spaces were divided and filled in with temporary houses and businesses in the Nineteenth Century. “Alley dwellings” were a response to the population boom and housing crisis that hit the District during and after the Civil War.
The narrow lanes became home to much of Washington’s working poor, from former slaves and free African-Americans to newly arrived immigrants. Many of the alleys began as racially mixed enclaves, but became predominantly segregated by the late 1800s and early 1900s.
And while some were close-knit and thriving communities, the conditions could often be bleak, lacking electricity, heat, or plumbing. Hidden from the main street grid, some also became the site of the city’s many vices – from gambling dens and brothels to speakeasies during the Prohibition years.
Conditions in the alleys motivated First Lady Ellen Wilson and later Eleanor Roosevelt to take up the cause of D.C.’s poorest residents. They advocated for demolishing the cramped and unhealthy spaces, culminating in Alley Dwelling Acts passed by Congress in 1914 and 1934 to do just that.
Most of D.C.’s alleyways were eventually razed or redeveloped – with the bulldozing of the entire Southwest quadrant as a notable example of this reformist zeal. And many of the alley dwellings that remained became notoriously seedy, gripped by crime and drugs in the 1970s and 80s.
Some were preserved by the activism of residents both old and new, and a mix of artists and offices began to move in. Blagden Alley and Naylor Court even became its own historic district in 1990, and D.C.’s office of Archives and Public Records relocated to Naylor Court in the former Tally Ho Stables.
Today, the mix of converted stables, shops, and homes are highly coveted (and expensive) real estate. And like the rest of Shaw, the alleys are seeing some dramatic and rapid redevelopment.
Still, they’ve become an unexpected bridge between envisioning the old and experiencing the new in D.C. Some businesses are even paying homage to the alleys’ past – like the new restaurant Thally on 9th Street. Its name is partly a nod to the former Tally Ho Stables that sits behind it in Naylor Court.
But there’s no better way to start exploring than a morning stop into La Colombe for some amazing coffee and pastries, followed by a stroll through Bladgen Alley and Naylor Court.