American Alley…An Introduction & First Impressions

First in a series about Petaluma’s American Alley

A collaborative project with Independent Journalist, Frances Rivetti

Articles will be filed under American Alley

Those who associate me with a certain kind of “reporting” in the past about blight and graffiti will be disappointed in this series.  There will be no ranting or bemoaning the fall of civilization. 

  • It will, of course, be a story about American Alley
  • It will be a story of scenes that are seen, but not seen, or scenes that are only revealed at certain times of the day. 
  • It will also be a story of how a photo exercise led to the discovery of a sophisticated mixed media public mural similar in scope and size to the Petaluma Heritage Mural on East Washington. Seeking the origins of the WPA style artwork turned into an ongoing research project to uncover its history. Several people participated in this effort, including Katherine Rinehart of the Sonoma County Library and, of course, Petaluma’s favorite history buff, Bill Hammerman. 



American Alley may not be all that familiar to many in Petaluma. Until recently, I was barely aware of its existence or function other than to note the frequent tagging on the walls as I drove by on East Washington.

Signage for American Alley off of East Washington © Frank Simpson

My “discovery” of the alley was a result of a photo grid exercise I have been running since February of this year in portions of Petaluma’s Downtown. The exercise has reinforced a lesson I learned some time ago:

There are three ways to see a neighborhood or urban environment:

  • If you drive through, you see things from the perspective of the vehicle. 
  • If you ride a bicycle, more scenes become apparent. 
  • If you walk, still more is revealed to you. 

After my experiences in the alley, I now appreciate that if you walk the same area at different times of the day with different lighting, even more is revealed.

The General Scene

The alley fits the classic definition of an urban alley in that it runs behind the buildings on Kentucky Street and Petaluma Boulevard and functions as a service road for deliveries and garbage pickup. Bill Hammerman advised me that the alley got its name from the American Hotel which was torn down to make way for Putnam Plaza.*  

It is easy to miss and, upon first glimpse, is not particularly inviting…

American Alley Exit to Western Avenue © Frank Simpson

As an aside, if one is curious about the origins of the word “alley,” Wikipedia and some of the online dictionaries report that it is a derivative of a French word: “Middle French ‘alee’ a walk, passage…derivative of feminine of ale, past participle of aler to walk ( French aller ).” In England, they are sometimes called “mews.”

However, American Alley is…well…it is an alley.

To be more specific, it is a commercial or business alley. 

The one way entrance is off of East Washington and the alley terminates at Western Avenue. Along the way it passes through the back of Putnam Plaza, briefly serving as part of the walkway or pedestrian concourse that connects Kentucky St. and Petaluma Blvd. Whether they realize it or not, people who use the walkway are regularly walking along or across part of American Alley at the back of the Plaza…

American Alley "Meets" Putnam Plaza © Frank Simpson

The above notwithstanding, the alley’s main function is a service road, if you will, for the businesses on Kentucky and Petaluma Blvd. 

Consequently, you would expect to see…what else?…deliveries…

American Alley © Frank Simpson

American Alley © Frank Simpson

American Alley © Frank Simpson

 And alleys being alleys, there is the occasional trash bin “inspector.”

American Alley © Frank Simpson

At this point, if I had not ventured further into the alley, the series would end…perhaps closing with a photo demonstrating how this upper stone building facade at the end of the alley has a pinkish or cream color in certain lighting conditions…

Corner of Western Avenue & American Alley © Frank Simpson

It would have been very easy to conclude that I had seen all there is to see. It is just another urban alley.  Move on.

Curiosity, however, caused me to examine the area more closely. 

TOMORROWAmerican Alley…Hidden Scenes

NOTE: *The American Hotel–1852 to 1966. There were actually three hotels as fires consumed the first two at the site. The last hotel “…was demolished in 1996, when the city condemned it. The vacant lot that resulted was later occupied by the present-day Putnam Plaza.” (Petaluma: A History in Architecture page 11 by Katherine J. Rinehart)




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