Today, walk with me through Galveston's alleys. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
If you live in a house, your
back lot probably ends at the fence of the neighbor
behind you. City blocks today are normally two lots
wide with nothing in between. But they weren't
always. Go into an old enough part of your city
and, if it's still intact, you're apt to find an
alley running down the center of each block.
When I was kid, regular deliveries were made from
the alley -- coal for the coal chute, groceries.
Ice for our ice box came down the alley on a
horse-drawn truck. The garage faced into the alley.
The old city of Galveston was laid out that way
with its wide blocks severed by alleys. Galveston
was a wealthy port city before the Civil War, and
so it continued into this century.
The old mansions are still there. Some are historic
sites, some are private homes, some are bed and
breakfasts. And, in back, the old alleys are still
there as well -- with the same sort of small
buildings that've lined them for a century and a
Architectural historian Ellen Beasley began taking
an interest in those houses years ago and, as she
did, they teased her curiosity and grew into a
full-time commitment .
Those little houses were once slave quarters, then
servant's quarters. They gradually became low-cost
housing stirred right into the heart of the city.
In the hard years after WW-I, they were the mixing
ground among black and white, rich and poor.
Walk the alleys of Galveston today, and you'll find
a stunning blur of architectural style -- shotgun
houses, slim two-story buidings that house a garage
below and a family above.
We have statistics from 1900 -- the year the great
hurricane struck Galveston and killed some 8000
people. Three out of four of the thousand alley
dwellers were black at the time, the rest white. A
few of the present alley houses were ones that
survived the storm and were jacked up when
Galveston built a sea wall and raised the ground
level eight feet.
The alleys have been alternately dirty and clean.
When Galveston suffered an outbreak of bubonic
plague in 1920, the city went into the alleys
killing rats and doing massive cleanup. Before
that, a building code had eliminated anything you'd
call a shack. These homes may've represented the
lowest leg of Galveston society, but the alleys
prevented the poor from being ghettoed they way
they are in larger cities.
This old way of life is a direct spin-off from the
days of slavery. Yet it has mutated into something
much more humane. The children play together -- and
that heals wounds in ways no federal program ever
could. Beasley finishes her book on the old alleys
with a poignant photo -- a telephone pole with a
hand-lettered sign on it says OUR ALLEY IS KATHARO.
The Greek word katharo means cleansed.
There is pride of place here. And there is
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds