Here in the Western part of Canada, the blocks in residential neighbourhoods are laid out with a lane between each two streets. From whence notes on words’ semantic spread, and on those losing the fight against their cities.
First an urban-planning note: if you can afford the space, lanes are terrific. The garage goes on the back alley, as do the trashcans, the basketball hoop and so on. This allows you to focus on the aesthetic affect of the front of your house.
The effect is the opposite of that found in soulless suburban subdivisions, the houses on road-to-nowhere crescents each badged with an unlovely garage, double or triple these days.
Word Meanings and Set Theory · You can, and routinely do, refer to this little road as your “lane” or your “alley,” freely prefixing either usage with the word “back.” This word pair is interesting; their ranges of meaning intersect only in this residential construct. A “lane” (but never an “alley”) could mean a bucolic country path through pasture to a bluebell wood. An “alley” (but never a “lane”) could mean a festering concrete hell in the worst part of town, redolent with cocaine psychosis and trick-for-a-fix hustlers.
The meaning-spaces of words rarely line themselves up in such mathematically tidy pools.
The Lane People · The lanes are not unpeopled. We the locals are there when driving in and out, putting out garbage, and teaching the kids to ride the bicycle. But there are people who use the alleys not the streets by choice. Mostly they are those who've been broken one way or another by the city, or wound up in the city after they got broken.
Many of them pick through our refuse looking for anything recyclable or salvageable: an old Chinese guy, a painfully-thin shabby-gothic pierced chick, a well-dressed white-haired lady, her clothes and hairstyle very decent, alarmingly reminiscent of my mother.
Then there are the lean hungry types with lined faces in baseball caps, cruising along on a beat-up bike taking a careful level look at the back of each residence, presumably looking for the easy ins; the property-crime statistics suggest they're finding a few.
Our back alley is distinguished by having no streetlights; one time my neighbor Ian came home after dark and found some dudes stripping down a car, presumably stolen, at the darkest end.
This is not entirely without its benefits. If you have a discard that is too awkwardly large for the trash—a garden wheelbarrow gone too much to rust, a 17" Sony monitor that's seven years old and going intermittently pink—just leave it out in the alley by your back gate, it'll be gone in a few days.
I don't know what to think about these people. “The poor always ye have with you” said Jesus, and it's hard to imagine a social order without them, and it would be kind of nice if they didn't come down my back alley, but when I run into them I say hello, and some of them smile and say hello back.