Between the Streets: Corvallis Alleys

Walking downtown, through the Corvallis alleys – the streets between the streets – can be a lot of fun. I’ve loved it long before the recent blossoming of officially-approved murals, some of which are really beautiful. Such as the striking beauty with green wisps of hair turning to blue waves at the backside of the Taco Vino and DiMaggio’s plaza. 

The graffiti are more witty than beautiful, but they add their own charm. There’s the unintended beauty of meter boxes and utility poles; the quiet history lessons of bricked-up windows and old bricks stamped ‘CORVALLIS,’ made right in town at Corvallis Brickworks, which used to stand at the south end of 1st Street.  

Before the murals, there were smaller pieces of public artwork commissioned by the city, ranging from poems lithographed onto metal plates, to bas reliefs in fired clay, to a bronze frog climbing the backside of the old Benton County Bank building on Second Street. 

You’ll find photographs of old Corvallis hung up with explanatory text, of the kind displayed around town in parks and along sidewalks. That’s one way to learn of Corvallis history. The more interesting history lessons can be found in the scars left behind by remodeling. 

When you see a place where there was once a large doorway and several windows, now all plugged with bricks and only a single small door, you can see how radically a building’s purpose has changed. There are hints of how the coming of electric lights changed the way buildings were designed, once it was possible to light storage rooms without windows.

Another piece of history can be found in round hatches set in the sides of buildings at ground level. Once, sawdust from the many lumber mills in Philomath and Albany was sold to Corvallis businesses and homes as heating fuel, emptied from trucks into funnels to fill bins in basements beside furnaces. Now these hatches are sealed, or else converted into ventilators.

You will find interesting improvisations: barbed wire woven across a window instead of chain-link fencing, or grillwork made from pieces of rebar welded together. 

In some places, you’ll see the back doors of people’s apartments and parking spaces – even their canoes. You’ll meet people working between the streets and see signs of their work left behind. Don’t interfere and don’t trespass when the back door of a restaurant is standing open. But it can be fun to peep inside as you walk by. 

Walk down an alley and have its smallness all to yourself or share it with someone walking the other way. You’ll see the occasional truck coming down the alley – just step aside and let it pass: it’s sort of like stopping for a train coming through. You might sidle past another truck stopped in an alley and nod to the people unloading it. They’re doing what they’re doing and you’re doing what you’re doing, and it’s all cool.

You might find scrap lumber in dumpsters that can be used to make furniture. It’s technically illegal, but lots of people have done it. You might discover discarded clothing that can be laundered and worn. One of my favorite shirts is technically a piece of garbage, though you wouldn’t think so looking at it now.

Enjoy the smell of freshly-cut wood behind a shop sawing two by fours for new storage shelves.  Relish the rich scent of discarded beer mash still steaming from the vats. Cultivate an appreciation, in moderation, for the aroma of rotten vegetables and coffee grounds in a restaurant’s compost bin.

There is a lot you can see if you come walk the streets between the streets of Corvallis. Carefully. Mindfully. Politely.

For more between-the-streets photos of Corvallis, visit http://mean-streets-of-corvallis.tumblr.com.

By John M. Burt