After more than 15 years of attention to the alleyways in downtown Columbia, a new art initiative called the Alley Gallery will re-energize the effort.
Local artists are invited to submit proposals for painting the doors in Columbia’s alleys to reflect the history and culture of the city. The hope is to complete the first installation in Alley A between Ninth and Tenth streets during spring 2022.
“It was just another public art project we thought we could do to help beautify and welcome and make people feel more safe in the alleys,” said Nickie Davis, executive director of The District, which represents downtown businesses.
Willing property owners will be asked to lease alley doors for the project, and the artists will receive a $2,000 stipend. Davis said the artwork will stay on the doors for at least five years.
Revitalizing the downtown alleys began in 2005, said Carrie Gartner, former executive director of the Downtown Community Improvement District.
“It’s really a process that never ends,” she said.
The most visible revitalization project is the stretch of lofts, restaurants and art along Alley A, which holds the entrances to Shortwave Coffee and Kampai Sushi Bar and Restaurant.
But in the early days of alley improvement, the goal was simply to keep the alleys clean and safe.
“Back then, you would walk through an alley and there’d be seven or eight dumpsters just lined up in the alley,” Gartner said. “A lot of it was just ‘How do we get better trash solutions?’”
The District worked with the city to replace trash bins with trash compactors, saving the city $6,000 annually in solid-waste-disposal costs, the Missourian has reported.
In 2005, the city also began generating names for downtown alleys. The names would allow businesses to have building addresses where they could receive deliveries and emergency services, Gartner said.
One proposal would have named five east-west alleys that run through downtown, and another would have divided each alley into segments with different names — 22 in all — to honor historical milestones and business leaders.
Sharp End Way became the tentative name for the alley between Walnut Street and Broadway. Nowell’s Way and McQuitty Way were proposed to commemorate stores and business owners significant in those areas.
But the City Council tabled the project in 2008, and it was never revived.
Downtown businesses also came together in 2008 to cultivate what is now Alley A, with a butterfly mural painted in 2019 to upgrade the entrance. The painting, installed by Children’s Grove and Resident Art artists, includes the words, “Kindness changes everything.”
In 2015, the city worked with The District to install 21 light fixtures in downtown alleys, a project that cost about $6,500. The effort was intended to improve safety in the alleys for pedestrians, especially at night.
The Alley Gallery project idea came from The District’s Economic Development Committee, inspired by the city’s ongoing downtown traffic light box installations. Every year, The District contributes funding to the city to paint traffic light boxes with creative, colorful designs, Davis said.
The first Alley Gallery installation is to be painted on doors belonging to The District’s offices, with additional doors painted as proposals are approved.
“I want it to go on for at least as long as the [The District] is around,” Davis said. “Hopefully just down the line, we’re going to have all these weird little nooks of beautiful spaces.”
This type of alley revitalization has become a nationwide trend where communities create livable spaces to live and work that also address safety and infrastructure needs. Cities like Chicago have started renovating their alleys to control flooding and provide lively public spaces.
Columbia has been developing an alley aesthetic that matches its own particular character.
“Our downtown is so unique compared to other smallish city downtowns,” Davis said. “Columbia is all about its artists, its public art and supporting small, local businesses.”