| By Mari Hall |
At best, most people here in the U.S. associate alleys with the essential services they enable, like trash and recycling removal. At worst, some see them as portals into the dark criminal underbelly of their city thanks to the likes of Al Capone and Hollywood filmmakers.
Alleys might seem like an unnecessary piece to consider in the placemaking puzzle, but they’re actually a hugely overlooked element of cityscapes across America. A fascinating reflection of their urban landscape, alleys have the capacity to transform a city block from the inside out. We can see the burgeoning effects of this right here in downtown Fargo, thanks to Roberts Alley.
Dempsey’s regulars and other downtowners may remember the days when Roberts Alley was, well… Just an alley. Bordered by historic buildings on one side and surface parking lots on the other, it was dedicated to dumpsters and smoke breaks. It was, for the general public, both avoidable and forgettable.
But in 2012, the tide began to turn for Roberts Alley with the opening of Mezzaluna, the much-loved fine dining restaurant that has its main entrance on the alley side of the Smith, Follett & Crowl building. Over the years, downtown Fargo has built Roberts Alley up from a workaday alley into a destination by adding new elements as businesses grow and evolve.
Today, Roberts Alley is a pedestrian-friendly and people-centric corridor stretching from 2nd Avenue North to 4th Avenue North featuring one-of-a-kind businesses, back-alley bars, and even fully fledged restaurant patios. As of this publication, a trip down Roberts Alley would include:
During the day, the alley still provides much-needed access for trash removal, food delivery, and other essential services for local businesses, but come evening, all year round and almost any night of the week, the alley transforms into a scene full of families eating ice cream, folks bar hopping, friends dining out, downtown residents walking their dogs, and so much more.
The recent completion of the Kesler project, which officially began welcoming residents in July, offers renewed opportunities to extend Roberts Alley’s inviting atmosphere south to 1st Avenue North. Like Roberts Commons, the urban infill mixed-use development that added three new commercial bays to Roberts Alley, Kesler has the capacity for alley-side retail businesses as well. Merchant’s Bank and the Black Building, the historic buildings neighboring Kesler, also have the ability to connect new businesses with this evolving pedestrian way.
Roberts Alley has blossomed in tandem with downtown Fargo’s resurgence, and the vibrant success of that revitalization is reflected in the unique character of this urban outdoor room. The small businesses, art installations and murals, and general accessibility have only been made possible by healthy neighborhood growth, and in turn they’ve added to downtown Fargo’s liveliness and culture.
So what comes next for Roberts Alley?
With the expanded opportunity to incorporate a diverse array of businesses into the alley’s intimate and comforting scale also comes additional space, energy, and patrons to support community-sanctioned programming. Alley-focused programming isn’t groundbreaking. In fact, we’ve done it before. In 2018, after Roberts Commons officially opened, Radio FM Media hosted the Right Up Your Alley event, which brought hundreds of people to this previously overlooked part of downtown Fargo.
Fargo now has a bigger opportunity than ever to take our inspiration from bigger cities like Chicago – a city with more than 1,900 miles of alleyways baked into its urban design – and organizations like Chicago Loop Alliance. Pre-pandemic, the Loop Alliance hosted regular ACTIVATE events in alleys throughout the Loop, creating tailored events with interactive activities, music, art, and more (not unlike Folkways’ Night Bazaar). With a lively alley spanning three city blocks and plenty of room to give any event a quintessentially downtown Fargo twist, the possibilities for new public programing are endless.