Revisiting Bozeman's Roots & Contemplating Development with an Alley Tour

I first jotted down some notes on this topic in March and delays during a recent flight allowed time to revisit it. Summer is a busy time for building and reminded me the issue of how Bozeman grows is a heated one. I'll post this now rather than waiting to get my thoughts perfect. Feel free to add your thoughts (And photos) to the conversation.


With rampant development, increasing traffic, and an ever-quickening pace of life, there’s no doubt about it, Bozeman is a fast growing and quickly changing town. Here, you’ll find lots of people grumbling about the downsides of recent development, and while I agree there are growing pains as town evolves, I firmly believe all is not lost. All you have to do is take an Alley Tour, a quick wonder around Bozeman’s alleys and backstreets.

Some time each February I take my first Alley Tour of the season. This late-winter tradition is an excellent way to see first-hand that, despite everything, Bozeman is still a lively mountain town with dynamic personalities and pockets of rugged charm. After an Alley Tour, I am reminded Bozeman’s distinctive character, which drew so many of us here in the first place, is still alive. I walk away convinced that despite an ever-gentrifying landscape, it will take a lot to kill Bozeman’s spirit.

As I explore the back passageways, dirty piles of snow stubbornly cling to the ruts down the alley leaving a trail of snow, mud, and puddles to navigate. Between the muck under foot and the dwindling daylight, early evening in late winter is an ideal time to explore the alley. Unlike during the middle of a sunny day, there is no glorious big sky to distract from the scenery at hand helping assure the experience is ideally atmospheric. Under steel grey skies, the graffiti seems gruffer and angrier, and abandon cars, vans, bikes, and boats appear more abundant. Derelict buildings appear more run-down, and disheveled properties seem a little more edgy.

As I walk, I notice the variety of houses lining these passageways, a treasure-trove of ramshackle properties, cluttered yards, unique dwellings, and ordinary abodes as well as a few stylish residences. Many of the homes are old. Some appear to be sliding off their foundations into the earth while others appear to have no foundation at all. Other houses are faded stars, once attractive homes allowed to fall into disrepair. Their elegant porches and woodwork still remain but sag and peel with neglect, their beauty and charm a thing of the past. Joining the mix are slap-dash masterpieces, small abodes with random add-on wings and a variety of yurts, sheds, and structures to expand the usable space. And thrown in here and there are remodeled houses, their angular metal-enhanced facades and bright colorful paint offer a striking contrast and a subtle reminder that Bozeman is changing.

If I let me imagine run wild, I feel transported into a scene straight out of the movie Scrapple. In my vision, ski lift operators, bartenders, and house painters would rent these old battered homes for cheap. Allman Brothers tunes would be floating out of the windows and friendly stoner types, like the Scrapple characters Al Dean, Tom, and Errol, would be sitting on the porch exuding a palpable sense of good cheer. No one would be too busy or overly concerned with life, and everyone would be fully engaged with their fellow porch-mates and give a hearty hi to all who pass by.

Bozeman, Montana Alley TourAlthough the scenery I pass harkens back to the halcyon ski bum days of yesteryear, it’s not 1970s Bozeman, it is an early evening in February 2017 and people are scarce. I am stricken with a keen sense of nostalgia and curiosity. Who on earth collected all this junk? What was Bozeman like in the 1970s when the population was under 20,000, trendy boutiques were rare, and Bozeman wasn’t on any top-ten lists? With new restaurants, increased art and cultural offerings, and an expanding job market, is 2017 Bozeman really that bad?

Smaller and less diverse but quiet versus bigger and more vibrant albeit with more people and traffic, what is the right answer for how Bozeman (Or any area) should grow? So many questions to ponder as I wonder the alleys in the vanishing daylight of late winter. There are no easy answers but I am hopeful.

I encourage everyone, especially if you’re feeling jaded about “all those people” moving in and “ruining” Bozeman, to take a late winter walk and roam Bozeman’s alleys and passageways. Here you’ll find a mish-hash of original and repurposed, quirky and classy, odd and ordinary. It is here, in Bozeman’s alleyways, you can find a clear reminder of the free-spirited part of the city’s identity.

What follows is the ideal Alley Tour. Strap on your Yaak Trax and gaiters, it’s alley season and Bozeman’s backstreets are calling.

1)     Start your Alley Tour at the abandon train tracks at the east end of the Ale Works parking lot near the Village Downtown. Start on the southern sidewalk that enters the development and leads to a path behind the Georgetown-style townhouses. You’ll quickly get to a short stretch of an old rail track with an old trestle perched above grassy, seemingly wild lands. Birds and deer are regularly spotted here, and it’s not hard to imagine many a fox, rabbit, and other critters inhabiting the area. The old rail line ends abruptly above actual train tracks near the interstate and the Story Hills. Graffiti is sprayed on these train remnants, a few beer bottles are strewn about, and homeless folks have been known to gather here to spin tall tales and take in the scenery at the edge of town.

From here, backtrack to the original path and traverse to your right, towards the Village Downtown’s multi-story condo building. You’ll head down the sidewalk to a fire lane taking you behind the condos to the Simkins-Hallin lumberyard. This light industrial complex provides a contrast to the small patch of nature and posh development. With its endless piles of lumber and building materials, this thriving business reminds the alley-walker one is indeed in a growing town. From here, you’ll be deposited on the odd corner where Peach, Plum and Avocado Avenues all come together. Head south for the second part of the Alley Tour.

LIttle Free Library, Bozeman, Montana
2)     The parameter of part two is between Church and Broadway and Peach and Lamme. Feel free to explore this part of your Alley Tour free-format. In some sections, you’ll be without sidewalks, which adds to the tumbledown atmosphere. Ski area signage, road signs, license plates, skis and bike parts are commonly used as decoration and piles of junk are commonplace. You’ll find garage-based biodiesel operations, backyard chickens, and a lot more if you dig around. There is a sense people with strong personalities live here, these are not ordinary folks tied to convention.

The book depository on corner of Church and Fridley marks the end of this section of the Alley Tour. This is one of several free "libraries" that have started to appear throughout Bozeman. These depositories allow people to drop off and pick up books. I like seeing these libraries and mention it here as they are examples of Bozeman’s generous spirit and sense of sharing, recycling, and intellectual pursuit. The idea of bringing people and communities together through the distribution of books is a cool concept. Could a community that embraces this really be ruined?

From the book depository, head south on Church and turn onto Lamme to get to the final segment of the Alley Tour.

Ramshackle Bozeman, Montana

3)   Your Alley Tour ends with a stroll down Perkins Place, located off Lamme between Church and Rouse. Unpaved and narrow, at first glance it appears to be another alley. There is a sign announcing you have reached Perkins Place but one would think the sign was for show, a whimsical way to mark one’s alley. However, it is a real street as indicated by the 10 miles per hour sign and street numbers on the dwellings. Apartment buildings and houses line Perkins Place, many with road signs adorning the exteriors, junk cars lying under tarps, and heaps of bric-a-brack cluttering lawns. Perhaps most interesting is the rambling three-story barn on the northwest end of Perkins Place, not far from where it ends as it hits Peach Street. This Lincoln Log looking structure appears as if a brisk wind or even a mere nudge could send it tumbling into Bozeman creek or onto an unsuspecting alley explorer.

Perkins Place, Bozeman, Montana

4)     Alley Tour bonus extension! Visit the 200 block of West Lamme and observe two small rental white houses and a white eight-unit apartment building. All have fallen into disrepair and are boarded up. Rumor has it another mid-rise condo building will soon replace them. Also visit the parking garage on south side of Mendenhall, between Willson and Grand. Graffiti covers both of these spots and both are curious urban spaces.

5) After ending your tour, head back to the starting point at Ale Works or drop in at the Tap Room. Both are fitting places to end your Alley Tour – not just for the beer, libations and food but also for refurbished nature of these buildings. As with the area you just explored these places bring together the vast personalities of Bozeman and the people who inhabit it. 

A similar post (And as of now my second most popular post!): http://annvinciguerra.blogspot.com/2017/01/paradise-ruined.html

This is Bozeman, Retelling the Story: http://annvinciguerra.blogspot.com/2016/10/retelling-bozemans-story.html

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