Salem's downtown alleys will get monikers during naming process. (Anna Smith/Salem Reporter)

Back alleys traditionally evoke thoughts of exposed brick, dumpsters and smoke breaks.

A place where you shouldn’t walk alone at night.

But in Salem, alleys are increasingly becoming a cool place to hang out and the Salem Main Street Association wants to capitalize on the trend.

The group is asking for the public’s help in naming eight downtown alleyways.

[ KEEP YOUR LOCAL NEWS STRONG - SUBSCRIBE ]

“Oftentimes alleyways have just been looked at as receptacles for garbage cans or deliveries,” said Jacqueline Heavey, chair of the design committee.

But over the last few years, Heavey said businesses are flooding out into the alley.  

They’ve become a hub for events like Make Music Salem and First Wednesday.

“It seemed like a natural fit to try to name them and support the businesses there with wayfinding,” Heavey said.

Name submissions must adhere to certain criteria; they have to reflect cultural or historic significance, have been a common name in the past and must be from 1950 or earlier.

The public input survey runs until July 12. After that, the public will be asked to vote in August on names that will go on signs in the alleyways and be printed on the sidewalks, Heavey said.

Staff from Salem Historic Landmarks came up with a list of potential names based on historical research.

Heavey said, “You kind of get these fun stories and see why these names did get vetted.”

They include the story of George Lai Sun, the unofficial Mayor of Salem’s Chinatown, once located between High Street and Liberty Street in the 1800s. According to the historical report, gathered from old newspaper clippings and the Marion County Historical Society, the Salem City Council condemned Chinatown in 1903.

One of the more well-known names is Electric Alley, so named because of the Electric Building, also known as the PGE building, erected in 1917 by Portland Railway, Light & Power company on Liberty Street N.E.

At the time of its opening, a demonstrator baked cakes “trying to show the public ‘Hey, electricity is a fun thing to have, everybody!’” Heavey joked.

Salem's downtown alleys will get monikers during naming process. (Anna Smith/Salem Reporter)

Inside 1859 Cider Co., located in the Electric Building, the post that had separated the former PGE and Yeater buildings sits in the taproom.

It’s a nod to the building’s historic past, something that co-owner Patricia Fox said makes Salem unique.

Fox and her husband, Dan, decided to set up shop in a business that solely has alleyway access. Fox said it was difficult, and still is.

The couple has no way of getting mail at their location. Loading trucks park in the narrow space. Explaining the business’s location is a challenge.

“We kept coming back thinking, ‘Are we crazy for putting this in the alley?’” Fox said. “Because nothing was in the alley.”

They walked away from the space twice. It took 11 months to get the business up and running before they opened in 2016.

But eventually other businesses started to sign on to the alley idea.

Now on any given night, people sit at picnic benches outside Taproot Lounge and Café or Victory Club, enjoying a drink or grabbing a bite to eat.

Fox said naming the alleys “gives a sense of place and makes it something unique to celebrate.”

She said in the past several years, younger businesses owners have taken a chance and tried to make things more “hip” downtown.

“Instead of just complaining about something and saying: ‘I wish Salem wasn’t lame,’ we can really make our mark and hopefully make a movement,” Fox said.

Kimberli Fitzgerald, Salem’s historic preservation officer, said the naming project is really about placemaking.

“It’s like: 'let’s get folks excited about the alleys,’” Fitzgerald said.

The names aren’t going to be something that’s searchable on navigation systems.

Greg Hadley, assistant fire chief with the Salem Fire Department, said the alleyways can’t have physical addresses because they don’t meet the city’s design criteria for a street.

Fire trucks need a minimum width of 20 feet for access, he said -- the alleys are 14 feet wide.

He said the fire department, and the city, are opposed to setting a precedent.

Hadley gave the example of a new subdivision narrowing its streets, because the city had already made an allowance for the downtown alleyways.

“We are not in favor as a city of lessening the street design standards that we have just to appease the downtown area, because it is a problem when it comes to access in those areas,” he said.

Hadley said crews working in the downtown core are familiar with the area and park on the street in front of the alleyway if they get an emergency call there.

“They’re going to park on Liberty,” Hadley said, citing an example. “They’re not going to pull down the alleyway.”

Heavey said the project is being modeled after other cities that have similarly tried to spark interest in back alleys.

In Vancouver, Canada the business improvement association put in a basketball hoop, painted the dumpsters bright colors and installed LED lighting in the alleyways.

Heavey said the Salem project could really draw people downtown.

“I think it could be such a win for our city,” Heavey said.

For Fox, the naming process is another step forward.  

“I’m really, really stoked about the overwhelming support that folks have,” Fox said. “And I hope again that once that gets done, we can go onto the next thing. And really truly make these alleys what they can be.”

Have a tip? Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, saphara@salemreporter.com or @daisysaphara.