By the late 1800s, many people were concerned about poor
living conditions in alleys all over the city. Social reformers turned their
attention to advocating housing improvements. One reformer wrote, "the
people studied are admirably resourceful in their use of edible wild plants
for food" — able to "get a few of these plants from vacant lots and
along the river bank."
For a time, there was plenty of local wild food to be
found. The Federal Writers Project reported in the 1930s that,
of wild rice extend over much of the Anacostia River estuary, and, along the
lower Potomac, wild celery, Peltandra, and various waterweeds.... Waterfowl,
cranes, rails, pigeons, grouse, bobolinks, and blackbirds were sold in the
Washington market as late as 1912; and, finally, with the draining and
clearing of the land for real-estate development, many bird haunts ceased to
In some parts of the city, archaeologists have found
evidence of wild foods gathered and used into the 1900s.
After decades of advocacy, one 1940s report states:
"With all the notoriety, the alleys remain
fundamentally unchanged; some of the homes are comfortable, some are fair
and some are, to use an over-used adjective, ‘deplorable.’ The people who
live there represent many different grades of culture; some are coarse
migrants, some suspicious and bitter, and other gracious and poised."
Today, in the Capitol Hill and Foggy Bottom
neighborhoods, alley dwellings are highly desirable housing.