Footnotes of the Avenues: An Introduction to Stephen Hilger’s “In the Alley”
By Matthew SpecktorJune 14, 2023
In the Alley by Stephen Hilger
LOS ANGELES RESIDENTS of a certain age will remember how we used to navigate this city without an app. Most of us kept within reach a road atlas called a Thomas Guide, which detailed every last street, freeway, and cul-de-sac to be found in Los Angeles County with gorgeous precision. In the absence of a single, orderly grid—or the more typical urban arrangement of center and suburbs—the Thomas Guide presented the city as a series of overlapping segments you might find yourself hopscotching across while charting an otherwise linear journey. You have to live here to really understand this place—though no one seems to know for how long, or in what spirit, or even what “here” might denote in a city that spans almost 500 square miles yet lacks any particular focal point. Los Angeles’s disorderly nature, its romanticism, and its mysteriously arcane quality were all honored by the Thomas Guide, which could turn a trip to the grocery store into an operation more akin to casting a necromantic spell. But one thing that was omitted from this atlas, for all its attention to detail otherwise, was the city’s equally complicated network of alleys. Indeed, these alleys are usually omitted from official cartographies, charted most often (as on the cover of this book) by proprietary maps hoarded by insurance companies and city planners. But if the roads of a city are frequently referred to as “arteries” capable of conveying traffic the way the body’s vessels circulate blood, our alleys are our capillaries pumping oxygen to the city’s invisible, but equally vital, necessities.
The alleys are the footnotes of the avenues. The late songwriter and poet David Berman sang those words on the Silver Jews’ American Water (1998), sketching the situation with his typical gnostic acuity. But there’s more to it than that. In Berman’s song, a pair of characters named Smith and Jones—an American Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, or Didi and Gogo—“walk the alleys in duct-tape shoes,” their trousers belted in place with extension cords. These are poor people—in other words, discarded people. Those footnotes, as ever, hide vital information.
Stephen Hilger’s photographs do the same. They don’t so much “hide” the information as display it in plain sight, inverting the expected order so that the world we are used to seeing as dominant—that of rich people, the one that is usually fetishized or glamorized by the lens—is concealed, while that which is often overlooked is instead foregrounded. The alleys of Beverly Hills are wider, more expansive than those you find in other parts of the city. Even comparably affluent neighborhoods—Hancock Park, Brentwood, Santa Monica—tend to favor narrower, more utilitarian passageways, with telephone poles, garages, and recycling bins, and a pebbled asphalt surface just wide enough to accommodate the SUVs that occasionally rumble through. But not Beverly Hills. Its alleys are lavish, expansive, wider than many European streets. The trash bins back there are supersized—the Venti cup, the Big Gulp of garbage cans—yet the corridors themselves are conspicuously clean and inviting. As one walks along the main streets, one is tempted straightaway to dart down the alleys, to take a break from the bland and exhausting residential affluence of the avenues themselves—and yet the alleyways are also, somehow, forbidding. Public as they may be, should you choose to wander down one, you feel an immediate sense of trespass. Sauntering down the smooth asphalt (nowhere else in the city do these surfaces seem so recently repaved), you hear the reassuring thwack of a tennis ball, the splash of a swimmer behind the concrete and wooden walls. But the message is clear: You do not belong here. The cameras and placards proclaiming the watchful presence of private security firms say as much—as if the malign specter of the notoriously zealous Beverly Hills Police Department wouldn’t otherwise be enough already. But even beyond this, there is a fragile discomfort. You feel (perhaps this is just me) like you are on questionable ground, witnessing something—even though there’s nothing there, just refuse and walls and the backsides of houses—you really ought not witness.
There’s nothing there. Hilger’s photographs immediately put the lie to that assertion. Only someone who is asleep, or who has willfully turned a blind eye to the disparities of class, race, and power that structure our lives in America (as, alas, one way or another, almost all of us have) could walk here and see nothing. These alleys are, of course, service corridors, designed to reinforce existing hierarchies of labor. In addition to allowing access to the city’s municipal employees—telephone and electrical workers, trash and recycling collectors—the alleys exist to hold what the residents and pedestrians in the neighborhood prefer to leave unseen: their waste, and the people whose job it is to contend with that waste. But what makes Hilger’s work so revelatory is not just its level of detail or heightened sense of contrast, but rather its emphasis on memory and history. Anyone, perhaps, could walk down these alleys and, by paying attention, take notice of the political and economic signifiers: the angular graffiti sprayed across a wall next to another artfully crosshatched with vines; the rubber-gloved employee standing next to a resident’s Mercedes; the curved, colonial-style roof jutting up beyond a concrete fence. But Hilger’s photos imbue these things with a sense of yearning, with feelings of loss that run parallel, always, to the experience of decay. He’s not whitewashing or tidying anything up—the work is too steady, too acute to be swept away on any sentimental currents—but he’s not interested in agitprop either. A spray of light erupts over a rooftop; a shock of lush, tropical vegetation sprouts at the top of a wall; a bicycle leans into the ivy. There’s life here, and there’s feeling. The rich may indeed be different from you and me—the best thing about these photos may be how small-d democratic they are, how open and how transgressive—but they are caught up in the same currents of mortality and decay, and, if anything, Hilger’s work shows how pitiable are all efforts to deny it.
The wealth of Los Angeles—and of Beverly Hills in particular—is frequently viewed as synonymous with the movies. “Hollywood” stars live in Beverly Hills—or they used to—and whether this was ever really true (even in the halcyon days of the Thomas Guide and the 20th century), most of them lived north of “the flats,” on the other side of Sunset Boulevard—it’s impossible to view these photographs and this landscape without thinking of them. If the movies are something of a mirror that Los Angeles holds up to itself, it is interesting to consider the way that alleys have been explored in Hollywood cinema. Obviously, there is the great and terrifying jump scare that follows the diner scene in Mulholland Drive (2001); there is the fabled alley between Cahuenga and Cosmo where Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin, and Buster Keaton all shot scenes. But the wealth and class disparity reflected in Hilger’s work finds its expression—perhaps unsurprisingly—in a pair of films from the Reagan/Bush era: Paul Mazursky’s Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986) and Lawrence Kasdan’s Grand Canyon (1991). Both movies, of course, are vehicles for Hollywood’s liberal guilt, for the filmmakers to struggle with their own feelings about wealth inequality. Neither is entirely successful (again, unsurprisingly), but both are drawn to the alleys by necessity: the focal characters wouldn’t otherwise encounter poverty in their immediate surroundings. In Grand Canyon, a bereft empty nester has a series of encounters with an unhoused person the script refers to as “the Alley Baron,” whose mutterings take on a kind of mystic significance for her. In Down and Out in Beverly Hills (the stranger and more subversive of the two films by far), a wealthy manufacturer rescues a suicidal man from drowning in his swimming pool, then invites him to stay with the family while he struggles to get back on his feet. Both films present these alleys—Kasdan the slightly less plush corridors off Montana Avenue in Santa Monica, Mazursky the same ones we see in Hilger’s work—as places of revelatory encounter. Down and Out in Beverly Hills culminates in an alley with the formerly suicidal man dropping to his knees, ready to share a tin of old pâté, cheerfully embracing the reality from whence he came and to which he is prepared to return. Mazursky has the good sense to make his movie a comedy of sorts, but neither film can quite reconcile its contradictions because a real reconciliation would likely involve more tears and more blood than either is willing—or at least has time left on the dramatic clock—to show being shed.
Hilger, I suspect, isn’t striving for reconciliation, but rather for clarity, accuracy, ambiguity, and complexity. We find all of these and more in his images, which reveal still more the longer you linger over them. The chain-link fence reveals the legs of an unhoused person sleeping behind it; the empty swimming pool with the plastic slide sits next to a house exhibiting a confounding tension between maintenance and disrepair; the ivied fence with a bicycle propped against it reveals, too, the eyes of a man, perhaps a gardener, watchfully peering over the top. The mattress that skews, discarded, against a wall is trash to one person, but treasure, surely, to another. The work that happens here, out of sight, is essential to both the functionality of the residences and the gross dysfunction of late capitalism. The alleys are the footnotes of the avenues. Yes, but the alleys are where our lives and their by-products—our losses, our vulnerabilities, our waste (and how telling are those supersized garbage cans in light of the excesses and the carelessness of the rich), our defenses, and our secrets—collide, where we are perhaps more honestly depicted than we are with our robust and well-manicured facades. The maps and atlases don’t show them. Only the photographer does—with his roving, questing, loving, and transgressive eye. He catches them in their dilapidation, but also in their splendor. He makes this world—so full of sadness, vigor, loss, and contradiction—come absolutely alive.
Matthew Specktor is the author of the memoir Always Crashing in the Same Car: On Art, Crisis, & Los Angeles, California (2021). His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s, The Paris Review, and many other periodicals.
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