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Even alleys deserve dignified monikers

A Hyde Park resident takes her inspiration from T.S. Eliot, naming alleys after - cats, of course.

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 26, 2002

[Times photo: Stefanie Boyar]
Mary Esther Parker sits in the middle of Cheshire Alley, one of 11 alleys in Old Hyde Park she named after various breeds of cats.
HYDE PARK -- A few weeks ago, Mary Esther Parker paid a man $600 to stencil the names of cats on the alleys of her neighborhood.

Proof that she loves cats?

Proof that she loves alleys.

She christened Abyssinian Alley, Angora Alley and Bobtail Alley. Along came Calico, Cheshire and Himalayan, Lynx, Manx, Persian, Siamese and Tabby.

All in the name of giving an alley its due dignity.

Truth be told, Parker is a dog person. She doesn't even own a cat.

But she so loves Hyde Park's historic alleys that she doctored one of T.S. Eliot's poems, The Naming of Cats, to honor them.

The naming of alleys is a difficult matter.

It isn't just one of your neighborhood games;

You may think at first I'm mad as a hatter

When I tell you our alleys must all have their names.

Parker isn't one to pen poems about her passions. It's more of a utilitarian task, she says, "to get out a message." She's afraid Tampa might one day close its alleys, bowing to pressure from trash haulers too plump for the narrow lanes.

So she armed them with names.

"How can the city close alleys with names on them?" she asks, mischievously.

A board member for her neighborhood association, Hyde Park Preservation Inc., she even organized an alley committee.

Her bond with alleys dates back to the late 1970s, when she first moved into the neighborhood.

Bed springs and old toilets littered the alleys back then.

That was the first time an alley inspired Parker to poetry.

I think that I shall never see

An alley like that one behind me.

Chin on my hoe

I ponder my plight

How to improve such an unsightly sight.

How? She organized regular clean-up days.

Parker and her friends hauled away trash and planted salvias.

"We love our alleys," she declares.

Then, about six years ago, the city informed Parker that the L-shaped alley behind her home on Willow Avenue was too narrow a squeeze for city garbage trucks. Since then, she has gamely hauled her garbage to the front curb.

Those monstrous trucks make her sigh.

"They get bigger every year. But I'm determined someday they'll come down my alley again."

Recently, a garbage contractor for the city told her that all the Historic Hyde Park alleys ought to be closed. Parker fretted that someone might actually make good on that threat. "So, I got serious about the issue."

There was no bureaucracy involved; no petitions before Tampa City Council; no referendum on whether Calico Alley should be between Oregon and Orleans or Orleans and Willow.

Parker and her painter plunged ahead.

"It's easier to get forgiveness than permission," she says.

Mark Norris, the painter, used stencils and traffic-marking spray paint to achieve the end result: neat white lettering at the entrance to each tiny street.

In an era of sport utility vehicles, alleys do seem crazily narrow. But according to historians, they were a logical width to accommodate small service vehicles ferrying coal, ice and laundry to the rear entrances of houses where the kitchens were typically located.

Owners of early cars entered their detached garages and converted stables through the alleys. Old-time cars weren't much wider than the carriages and buggies they replaced, says Rodney Kite-Power, curator of the Tampa Bay History Center.

Alleys like the ones in Hyde Park crisscross historic neighborhoods all over the city, from Seminole Heights to Ybor.

Kite-Powell approves wholeheartedly of efforts to clean and name the old alleys.

"It's also a neat reminder of what neighborhoods used to be," he says.

Just last Saturday, Parker rustled up her red-checked tablecloth and threw yet another alley-clean-up picnic. Her group dined al fresco on hot dogs, cookies and sodas before ridding the alleys of refuse.

And where was the picnic?

In a little alley named Cheshire.

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