SAN JOSE--More than a century ago, the alley behind Florence and Malyn Knight's Victorian house made perfect sense. Ladies and gentlemen in horse drawn buggies rode up the alley and parked in the carriage houses behind their homes, saving their elegant, front entrances from the dust and manure that accompanied 19th century travel.

Those indignities are long gone, replaced by more threatening ones.

"My carriage house keeps getting covered with gang graffiti," said Malyn Knight, 82, who's lived off the alley since 1985. "The city tells me I have to do something about it. I said, 'Yeah, I should stand out here with a gun or something.'"

At long last help may be on the on the way. The city has plans for a $1.4 million worth of improvements for the alley. But the residents will believe it when they see it.

The mostly dirt alley runs for two dusty, bumpy, littered and intimidating blocks between Second and Third streets in the Spartan Keyes neighborhood south of downtown.

"This alley looks like a street in the poorest of Third World countries," Tony May, a retired college art teacher, said. "It's just several blocks from the center of the 'Capital of Silicon Valley."

To keep thieves and lowlifes out, he screwed panels of corrugated steel on his garage facing the alley. May started the latest neighborhood crusade to repave it 10 years ago and keeps at it, but with more patience than before.


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"We try to ignore the alley after a few years," May said. "It's become that strange, dangerous place behind our homes."

To be fair, City Hall has tried to unload the alley and several more like it in older parts of San Jose on property owners.

"The city can't maintain the alley," said Sam Liccardo, the city councilman who represents Spartan Keyes, arguing that San Jose can't pay for needed repairs on its own. "The city has no money. The alleys are bad for neighborhoods. They attract crime and trash and everything that goes with it."

The city over the years has tried selling the alleys to property owners for $1 each. But in every case, Liccardo said, one or two holdout owners refused, ruining the efforts.

So instead, the city and state expect to spend $1.4 million to repave the Spartan Keyes alley with environmentally advanced "green concrete" and a drainage system. Liccardo said the only way to get the state's share of the $945,000 cost was to go for the high-end repaving and drainage.

"It will look very nice when it's done," said Sal Kumar, the civil engineer heading the "demonstration" project that could be replicated elsewhere. "We're keeping our fingers crossed and hope to start this soon."

Florence Knight stood on several, sun-bleached carpets and disintegrating cardboard sheets that one neighbor had thrown over mud holes without asking anyone else.

"Look, wall-to-wall carpeting," she joked.

The group stepped over crumbled asphalt and wondered if the alley had once been paved end to end. They pointed out commercial waste bins overflowing with trash, litter, graffiti-marred walls and a moldy couch somebody dumped there.

"That's the heart of it," May said. "Nobody can ever pin it on anybody."

Carlos Alvarez, who owns a duplex and five-plex on the alley, became so fed up with illegal dumping he installed his own surveillance cameras on a barn that now serves as his garage.

"Nobody cares," Alvarez said. "Some guys came by last night and dumped a whole bunch of boxes here. I think I got them on tape."

He was one of the property owners who rejected the city's offer to sell the alley.

"We would have to park on the street," he said, "It's already crowded and that would create more problems."

Further up the alley renter David Elliott, said his wife had found used condoms on their parking spaces off the alley. He posted signs for "Prostitutes and Sex Buyers," stating that his own surveillance cameras were watching them.

"Actually, I don't know for sure if they're prostitutes," Elliott said. "They could be druggies. Who knows? They don't belong here."

The group's next stop was a carriage house converted into an apartment, the site of a brazen, daytime double murder in 2011. Police said one of the victims was a reputed drug dealer who was shot by another dealer.

"Our son was outside in the yard and heard the woman call for help," Florence Knight said.

The group admitted that homicides by gunfire happen everywhere, not just alleys, but the shootings certainly raised the fear level in their neighborhood.

Work on the alley can start as early as November if the state gives final approval to the city's plan. The neighbors half-expected a long delay.

"We'll have to have an amazing block party when it happens," May said.

Contact Joe Rodriguez at 408-920-5767. Follow him at Twitter.com/joerodmercury.