Quick, let's play urban planning Jeopardy!. For $100: These places in our cities are most likely to be called “dirty,” “dark” and “dangerous.” How about for $200: All the bad stuff happens here, from drug deals to prostitution to murders where dismembered arms are found dangling out of Dumpsters. I'll answer both, Alex: What are alleys?

Alleys have a worse connotation than any other place in our street lexicon (no offense to Jeremy Oberstein, whose pet project is photographing L.A. alleys). No other place comes close to receiving such disdain — maybe the freeway overpass is a distant second. So to reclaim an alley as the most vibrant, happy place in our city would be, technically, one of the greatest achievements in urban design. It would take a place that not only is frequented by the scum of the earth but is actually covered in the scum of the earth, and transform it into a place people actually want to go.

A tall order. But it's happening right now in Hollywood. Last week saw the opening of the East Cahuenga Alley, or EaCa Alley, a clean, revitalized alley that runs between Cahuenga and Cosmo Street, just north of Selma Avenue.

What the alley looked like before the project began; Credit: Hollywood Entertainment District

What the alley looked like before the project began; Credit: Hollywood Entertainment District

David Gajda, who owns the building at the southwest corner of the alley and serves as president of the new alley association, says when he bought the building 15 years ago, the alley was gated to keep people out. “There was needle exchange in our building and people were shooting up out back,” he remembers.

But when restaurant Citizen Smith moved in eight years ago, they cleaned up the alley (or at least their portion of it) because they saw the value in using the alleyway space for extra seating. Soon after, Gajda was approached by the Hollywood Property Owners Alliance with an idea to make the alleyway public. According to the alliance's director Sarah MacPherson, they had just begun to examine alleys as assets for the neighborhood. “We saw them as an opportunity,” she says. “It was a better idea to use the space in the most positive way.”

Reclaiming alleys has already happened successfully in Old Pasadena, where several thoroughfares have been converted into public streets, but this is the first like-minded pedestrian alley in L.A. The project required a unique collaboration between the alliance, the (now dissolved) Community Redevelopment Association and L.A. City Council President Eric Garcetti's office, as well as all the business owners up and down the alley. John Arakaki, manager of St. Felix, the restaurant that now occupies the Citizen Smith space, says that may have been the alley's greatest achievement. “It was really impressive watching all these groups working together for a common cause and making it happen.”

Property owner David Gajda paid for the alley's gate and signage; Credit: Alissa Walker

Property owner David Gajda paid for the alley's gate and signage; Credit: Alissa Walker

The alley, which was designed by the city's Bureau of Engineers, cost $800,000, which includes grading and the addition of new pavers (bricks with gravel between them, so they allow water to sink into the ground) but also some stormwater and drainage improvements. Businesses can add their own seating up to 10 feet behind their space, where they can get permits to serve alcohol as long as they serve food as well.

In the future, Gajda hopes to see art installations in the space, and he's working with the DWP on an energy-efficient lighting solution. A second alley has been in the works since 2009 for the western side of Cahuenga, adjacent to a new development by the Dream Hotel, which broke ground this spring. (The loss of the CRA meant a loss of potential funding, but there's no reason the hotel shouldn't pay for it. Hint.)

At the moment, the south end of the alley is the most developed, as it backs several restaurants like St. Felix and Velvet Margarita, which had already been using the alley for extra seating. Here there are gates, which Gajda paid for, and nice signage that lights up in blue neon at night. Heading north, the businesses there have yet to assemble their dining spaces, but Gajda estimates that within six to eight months you'll see tables up and down the whole alley.

And something else interesting is happening: Since the city mandates that you must serve food to be able to utilize the alley, Gajda is seeing the adjacent bars add a dining component. “It's a nice transformation, seeing this movement toward more of a restaurant row concept,” he says.

The northern end of EaCa Alley; Credit: Alissa Walker

The northern end of EaCa Alley; Credit: Alissa Walker

The biggest design flaw of the alley, sadly, can't be helped: The alley bucks left onto Cahuenga before it reaches Hollywood Boulevard, blocked by the two-story building that houses clothing store DRIP.

To make this space a true game-changer for Hollywood, it would be ideal to have the alley entice the curious eyes and wandering feet that already prowl the boulevard. With the entrance on Selma, I'm afraid most people won't know it's there.

The other issue is that half of the alley is only open when its businesses are. When I visited the alley on a Sunday morning, when the Hollywood Farmers Market draws hundreds of people to the nearby streets, I was dismayed to find the gates at the south end of the alley locked. But Gajda says this won't be the case for long, at least on Sundays: He's in talks with an event company about organizing a weekly event that will bring fashion vendors to the alleyway and into some restaurants, like pop-up boutiques.

That sounds promising, but I still think the best time to visit is the evening. Start by having dinner at one of the restaurants on the southern end, then walk north into the night. Even as an empty alley, it's a remarkably un-L.A. experience. I found myself marveling at the ancient-feeling buildings, the low-slung doorways and bricked-in windows, the glimpses of the Broadway Hollywood sign in the distance, the charm of a few lanterns lighting the way. It's a narrow, hushed space that feels like a medieval-era passageway from the Marais in Paris — a block from Hollywood Boulevard.

That transformational feeling is just the beginning, says MacPherson. “This is an example of what the possibilities are. I've always said your neighborhood is only as good as your worst alley.”

Alissa Walker blogs at Gelatobaby.com. Follow her on Twitter at @gelatobaby and for more arts news like us on Facebook or follow us at @LAWeeklyArts.

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