Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Why a community should care about its alleys January 25, 2018

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:00 AM
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This alley of art in Clear Lake, Iowa, impresses me. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.


I NOTICE DETAILS, always have. This heightened awareness weaves into my work. I write and photograph with a strong sense of place, a quality instilled in me long ago by growing up on the prairie. In that vast space of sky and land, every nuance of the environment imprints upon the soul.

My reactions to a place evolve from first impressions, most often viewed through my camera lens. I see the world in details of color, balance and perspective, of light and mood and texture and more.


An alley in Milaca, photographed in September 2017.


With that background, you can perhaps better understand why, when photographing a community, I notice more than the slick fronts of buildings, the parks and other attractions tourism offices promote. I look beyond those to the alleys, the roof lines and even the sidewalks. The details.


The scene along a balcony on the back side of a building along Third Street N.E. in downtown Faribault, just across the alley from the post office is one of my favorite alley photos for the story it tells. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2015.


It is the alleys in particular that draw my visual interest and show me the side of a community often overlooked. And too often neglected. There’s much to learn in those alleyways about people and places and cultures and even socioeconomic status.


I love the sweet surprise of these floral paintings brightening an alley in downtown Clear Lake. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2015.


Hanging baskets line the alley behind Larson’s Mercantile in Clear Lake, adding a splash of color to the downtown. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2015.


The Contented Cow opens onto a riverside space between buildings in historic downtown Northfield. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 2014.


Looking further down that narrow space, I photographed a wedding party gathering near the Cannon River. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


A mural on The Key (youth center) building in downtown Northfield. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo April 2017.


Through the years, I’ve documented many behind and between businesses scenes with my camera. I’ve seen how a community can convert an alley into a lovely and inviting space. Clear Lake, Iowa, and Northfield, Minnesota, especially, have succeeded with this attention to detail beyond storefronts.


Michelle’s Garden, right next to the alley behind buildings along Faribault’s Second Street and Central Avenue. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2015.


The back of The Crafty Maven (now closed) sat right across the alley from the garden. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2015.


This mural of an iconic scene from downtown Faribault was installed along an alleyway visible from busy Minnesota State Highway 60/Fourth Street in the heart of downtown. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


My community of Faribault, too, boasts an alley-side mini park and an alleyway mural creating a more inviting downtown. But dumpsters overflowing with garbage in other sections of the downtown counterbalance the positive efforts.


The behind buildings parking lot scene in downtown Faribault highlights the area’s ag base. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2014.


In my opinion, every community should pay closer attention to the details. They are part of the whole, of the impression visitors gather of a place beyond the side we’re supposed to see.

THOUGHTS? I’m interested, especially, in hearing how your community or other communities have beautified alleys and/or backs of businesses.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


20 Responses to “Why a community should care about its alleys”

  1. Beth Ann Says:

    I always notice the murals and artwork in alleys and back lots as well. Several places I have visited lately have utilized murals as part of their landscape including Dothan. They don’t have to be anything elaborate, do they? Sometimes just the simple like the picture from Clear Lake just adds a pop of color and life to a space.

  2. I am fortunate to live in a place that blends the traditional with the creative with a mix of fauna and flora, benches, murals, etc. When you are on a walk about you are looking for the hidden painted oranges on buildings and new ones are painted every month. Then there are the painted dolphin statutes that have different themes. I will have to share some photos and post on my blog for everyone to see. It is pretty cool! Happy Day – Enjoy 🙂

  3. I love these alley and behind-businesses photos. Small towns in the area I grew up (Ohio) are doing more creative upgrades also. My cousin is a mural artist and has done several murals for local businesses. I’m hoping to do a piece on her when we visit this summer–her artwork is becoming a familiar sight in the area. Thank you for sharing your attention to details.

  4. Here is a link to an article by Todd Hale about the owl paintings that are mysteriously appearing on buildings in downtown Owatonna: http://www.southernminn.com/owatonna_peoples_press/community/article_6485f327-70e4-5d6b-bfcf-d0ae748e2e7b.html

  5. Nice Audrey. Shows pride in the community. Nice to see.

  6. Littlesundog Says:

    It’s nice to see some communities take pride in the little details – alleys are not often thought of in that regard. It’s nice to find a clean and well-kept alley but to find flora or murals and little extras to please the eye – that is a real boon! Here, if I were a tourist, I would never enter one of our allies, either downtown or residential. One wouldn’t feel safe at all.

    • What is it that makes you feel unsafe in your community? This does not sound good.

      • Littlesundog Says:

        It’s a rough area of the state. We have a fence surrounding our property and keep the gates locked. I don’t feel unsafe here on our property but we take measures to avoid trouble like cameras and a security system in the house, and game cameras all over the property. Most of our neighbors homes have been broken into. There is a lot of crime in this community. It has a long history of trouble. It’s a sad situation that goes back many generations. It is not a place I would raise children. FD’s employer has opened a satellite office in the OKC area simply because they cannot attract people to this area to live (where the headquarters is). It’s a very downtrodden, poor community.

      • I’m sorry to hear this. What would inspire/help your community to become a better, safer place?

      • Littlesundog Says:

        It’s a complex problem. Part of it is loss of jobs in the oil and gas industry in the last 30 years, but especially in the last ten years. Economically, being an energy state, jobs and income has suffered greatly. And historically, there are other issues that are quite lengthy to get into. I hope some day you and I can talk face to face. I don’t want to even try to be politically correct here – I’d probably offend someone. I have compassion for the people in this town and area of the state. I always have hope that things will improve.

      • Compassion and hope are two important things to hold close for any community. Thank you for giving additional insight.

  7. Missy's Crafty Mess Says:

    I could share some trashy looking ally’s but I’d rather enjoy your photos

  8. Susan Ready Says:

    I love your positive take on the overlooked parts of the city, alleys which I really never thought about. Before reading article just the title I thought article was going to focus on lack of snowplowing in alleys which often happens (was a huge problem in a previous neighborhood I lived in as we all had detached garages and depended on the plow) but lovely you were able to extract the beauty of an alley and bring to the forefront for your readers. I like when they paint murals for added interest.

    • I think it’s incredibly important to consider our alleys. Businesses can beautify storefronts all they want. But if it looks trashy behind the business, that says something, too.

      I’m a mega fan of well-done murals geared to showcase a community. Faribault has done an excellent job with its many historical murals.

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