One Day I Will Rule the World

World Domination, Babies and Middle Eastern Dance

July 28, 2012

Delight in Dereliction

There is an alley near the hall where I take dance classes that I often drive down in order to get myself pointed the right direction for driving home. It runs beside a lovely white clapboard house with elaborately paned wood windows. In the back window there’s a collection (a huge collection) of tiny coloured antique glass bottles. Actually, I should have said half a collection because in the side window is an equal quantity of antique bottles, just in different hues. There is another window yet with pretty knick-knacks and a hanging basket. The paint is peeling off the siding of the house and the shingles are in bad shape, but the house itself is grand and full of beautiful details. Whoever lives in it may not have the cash flow to do all the maintenance she needs, but I bet anything that house is loved. After driving past this house many times and realizing I admire the side it shows to the alley much more than the side it shows to the street, I started to wonder why, when I take walks in the neighbourhood, I frequent that street, but never the alley.

This spring, Ian and I were driving somewhere in Riversdale, the neighbourhood where I grew up, and I spotted an interesting looking old truck parked just down an alley behind someone’s house. (I never used to notice old cars before I was involved with you, I told Ian. Yes well, I never used to notice antique mouldings and hardware before I was involved with you, he told me.) Anyhow, I said something about it and Ian said, “Oh, I missed it.” And I said, “We have time, we can loop back and drive down the alley to look at it.”

So we did.

The truck didn’t end up being quite as cool as it had looked from the street, but then we were in this alley, which curved through an irregular block taking us a couple of blocks out of our way, and so we drove slowly and looked around and commented to each-other on the yards. There were a couple of details that really pulled at me. Like the angle of a sagging old wood door on a tiny run-down garage. Or little piles of junk forgotten in a corner behind a shed. Or a neatly mowed expanse of back-yard with a wilderness of bushes and brambles at the property line. A carefully stacked pile of bricks, obviously salvaged, covered with a decade’s worth of moss and leaves. I thought a lot about that drive and about what those vignettes meant to me.

Poppies behind the back fence. Where probably no one but the garbage truck driver will ever see them, but I bet he appreciates the hell out of them.


I was turning over thoughts about my love of shabby styles – not really the overdone, frilly version of shabby-chic that’s become popular (though that’s pretty too) but the authentic stuff. The old and beautiful. The well-used yet still useful. And I was thinking about its connection with my childhood in what many would term the city’s ‘hood. Ian’s childhood, though more rural, paralleled mine. And we talked about our early years spent roaming our neighbourhoods unattended, exploring the derelict parts of it (which were abundant).

A child's toy, discarded in the back lane

Some child has been roaming free in this alley, too.


So a couple of weeks ago, I arrived home after a day of dance rehearsal in the middle of a summer rain and exhausted. I have a bit of a tradition of going for a walk whenever it rains,  so Ian asked if I was planning on going for a walk. I decided I could just head out and wander aimlessly in the rain for a bit in order to give myself a break before a night of harried costume sewing, so away I went. “I’m not even switching to a waterproof jacket and shoes, so I definitely won’t be long,” I told him. I think it was the exhaustion and aimlessness that sent me down the first alley. Like, I wasn’t planning on making it a real walk anyway, so I may as well just cut through here. But then that alley was so full of amazing things to gaze at – houses with elaborate tiny gardens planted in the eighteen-inch space between their back fence and the lane, tiny clapboard garages (sheds really) with adorable four-pane wood windows in their side-wall, moss-covered brick driveways from the alley right up to the back of a house.

A patchwork driveway of poured concrete, concrete pavers, stones and mismatched bricks. Either paved that way originally or repaired over a long life.

And when I reached the end of that alley there was another one, just across the street. I was wholely pulled into exploring the alley-life of my neighbourhood and I ended up walking for almost an hour, heading as far west as I could before running into the freeway and then looping back through alleys behind the main drag. The closer I got to the freeway, the more signs of beautiful dereliction I found, the more the lanes and yards resembled those from my childhood and the more in love with the alleys I found myself.

Totally just someone’s back yard. Past the property line to the left and to the right, I swear it’s all square and trim.

Our own back alley is a string of rather uniform modern garages and garbage bins facing apartment block parking lots. When you go down alleys belonging to houses that haven’t really been worked on in half a century, there is where you find the details that make me feel nostalgic for my childhood. Trees with foliage that bends and rustles so low, it makes me think of picking my way through a wood at a prairie lake. Rotted fence-wood. Pieces of old furniture lying in long grass in a forgotten corner. Crumbling brick paths. These houses give an air of being proud and untouched by modern concerns. I assume these are usually the houses that have changed hands the fewest. People evaluate and toss their detritus when they need to sell a house, so if the detritus is there, I think, “this can’t have been on the market any time recently” and I think it’s the detritus that I love. Like those piles of bricks that I mentioned. These things that, once the focus of profound industry, sit idle then, waiting for the right moment to be finished or thrown out or packed away, but they slowly become part of the landscape and never are. And it’s the length of time that something sits as part of the landscape that gives it that grace; the landscape curls up around it and softens the edges between itself and that fence, itself and the driveway, the garage, the broken chair, the pile of bricks.

It’s not just that people toss things out when they move. New owners are a force of eddying energies that push into all the corners. Objects that were trying to blend their edges into the landscape are nudged loose and plucked out so the new owners can make the space “theirs”.

I dragged Ian along on my next alley-excursion and we walked for well over an hour, dragging Hannah around with us. I was happy to note that Ian was as moved by the rust and ruin as I was. And I remember that as we walked, I was trying to explain my positive feelings about all the direpair. “It’s like there’s disrepair, but there’s pride in it…?” I fumbled. “Like, yes it’s neglected but… somehow you can tell that it’s still loved?”

I wasn’t quite hitting on what I was trying to say, but now I think it was about how little those houses have changed hands. One of the gorgeous things I see in all this dereliction is that people have put down roots. It reflects how I feel about my own house and my presence in this neighbourhood. If you’ve been in a house for 30 years and you plan on being there for 30 more, you have the luxury of not fixing up a sagging garage door for looks (when it’s still just attached to a hundred-year-old garage anyway). You have the luxury of salvaging 20 bricks from some demolition or project and hanging onto them in some corner of the yard because “who knows when you might need them”. And if it’s not for 10 years, there’s no reason to sweat that. You have the luxury of tossing a couple of chair legs into the corner by the shed while you decide whether you might repurpose them in some way. It might be the summer after next before you decide how or give up and chuck them – but that’s not a long time in the scale of your relationship to your surroundings.

An old door as a back gate

There is also that this proud kind of disrepair shows what is and what isn’t a priority to the owners. In the same yard as falling down garages, you’ll see elaborately built, trimmed and painted treehouses. A yard with a rusty old van on four flat tires will have the most exquisitely tended garden. When you’ve been in your house for 30 years and you plan on being there for 30 more, you can live and maintain according to your own priorities, not by what “shows” best.

Blissful & eccentric domesticity: The back deck and steps have been ripped out and who knows when we’ll get to re-building, but we can still park our hot pink adirondack chairs together on our patchy lawn and gaze happily down to the muddy back-lane.





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3 ResponsesLeave one →

  1. Deborah

     /  2012-07-28

    Some of us take our detritus with us when we move. 😉

  2. judith

     /  2012-07-28

    And then take it back again.

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