Secret Staircases

Roman Mars: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Sam Greenspan: Okay. This is Secret Stairs East Bay Walk #30.

Roman: If there is ever a place that’s higher up than where you’re standing, there’s a reasonable chance you’re going to want to go up. And wherever there is sufficient demand to move between two points of differing elevation, there are stairs.

Sam: Turn left, walking between the imposing gates onto Rockridge Boulevard. Yep. Note the line of very tall, very old palm trees ahead of you. Check.

Roman: California has a lot of hills. In certain neighborhoods in our great state, you can find outdoor stairs.

Sam: Then, just past the house at 6095, find the almost-hidden staircase, it is your first climb.

Roman: Public stairs.

Sam: Let’s see. 6095. 609. 6107. 6101?

Roman: If you know how to look for them.

Sam: Holy Moly, I totally missed this! Wow, I walked right by these steps. And there they are.

Roman: That’s our producer, Sam Greenspan, and as you may remember, he just moved to the Bay area.

Sam: I think I knew California had hills, I just didn’t realize how much of a thing it is here.

Roman: The large number of often hidden public staircases is one of the major reasons why the Bay area is so great. The tourist crippling Filbert Steps to Coit Tower are not to be missed. The Monument Way staircase that leads you to my favorite place in the city, the pedestal of what used to be Sutro’s Triumph of Light and Liberty statue. Ugh, and I go out of my way every single day to walk the two blocks worth of stairs by my new place in the Berkeley Hills. We have public staircases….and they rock. And the guy who wrote the book on East Bay public stairs is Charles Fleming. But he’s not from here. The East Bay stair book is actually a spin-off of his previous book, Secret Stairs of Los Angeles, which is where Charles lives. And that’s where Sam tracked him down.

Charles Fleming: My name if Charles Fleming. I’m the author of Secret Stairs, a walking guide to the historic staircases of Los Angeles.

Sam: There are more than 30 people assembled here, because one Sunday a month for the past few years, Charles has been leading public tours through the routes in his Secret Stairs book.

Charles: And we’re here, were at Sunset Boulevard meets the Pacific Coast Highway in Pacific Palisades, about to embark on a stair walk. It’s actually Stair Walk #41 from the book Secret Stairs. And we will set forth here, walk up the Coast Highway a little bit, and then enter the historic Castellammare area of the Pacific Palisades, which features a number of striking public staircases.

Sam: And we’re off.

Charles: I’ll tell you a little thing or two about it.

Roman: Back before the tours, before the book, before he really cared about public staircases at all, Charles just needed to walk.

Charles: I got started with the stairs because I was trying to walk my way out of a surgery. I had had two hip replacements and two spinal surgeries in the space of about six years, and I was up for a third spinal surgery and I simply couldn’t face it. And I knew what the surgery was going to be like and I knew what the rehab was going to be like. So I told the surgeon, “I’m not coming” because I had found that a little bit of walking relieved the pain that I was in. So I started walking flat streets, maybe two blocks at a time.

Sam: It was that hard to walk?

Charles: Oh, it was– I literally would have to have my wife put me in the car and drive me to a flat street and help me out of the car, and watch me walk two blocks, pick me up and take me home. That was the first day. And you know, within a week, I was walking three blocks. And within a month, I was walking half a mile. And because it was working, I kept going. And when I got bored walking the flats, I started walking the hills. When I got bored walking the hills, I started checking out the staircases. So, first point of historic interest here–

Sam: Charles knew a little about the staircases. He’d seen them around Silver Lake, where he lives.

Roman: The staircases are generally either from the 1920’s boom years, or from the Works Progress Administration in the 1940s. They were built because developers in hilly areas needed to find a way for prospective home buyers to get down from their houses to a school, or a church, or a streetcar line. But the Depression and then World War II halted staircase construction.

Charles: And after that, the car really became the dominant feature of the Los Angeles landscape. So staircases weren’t necessary, because there weren’t trying to serve a pedestrian population anymore, they were trying to serve a car population. So they stopped building the staircases.

Sam: Charles looked for an inventory of all the public staircases in the city, but he couldn’t find one.

Charles: So I decided I would map…. I figured there were probably 15 of them and I would make that my little quest.

Sam: Turned out that his neighborhood, Silver Lake, had about 50 public staircases.

Charles: But I felt so much healthier when I was done with that, that I decided that I would do Echo Park, too. I figured there were probably 10 or 12 of them over there. Well, it turned out there were about 60 in Echo Park. But I felt so healthy when I finished that, that I just decided to continue.

Sam: So Charles kept extending his reach to different parts of Los Angeles.

Charles: Pacific Palisades, where we are now.

Sam: And he kept walking….

Charles: Santa Monica. Hollywood. Los Feliz…

Sam: And walking…..

Charles: Franklin Hills, Mount Washington, Highland Park, Eagle Rock, Happy Valley.

Sam: And kept walking.

Charles: And Pasadena!

Sam: By the end of it, he’d recorded routes that use 400 public staircases.

Charles: Four hundred and change. Well, over 500 that I actually mapped. But in terms of ones that I was able to turn into practical walks, four hundred and something.

Sam: Mapping the stairs and making all the routes to connect them, took Charles more than three years. At first, he’d just wander aimlessly through the neighborhoods. But over time, his approach began to get a little more sophisticated.

Roman: Often, it was just looking for hilly areas where streetcars used to run.

Charles: And then I gradually figured out that if you found a curvy street, a lamp post, and a sewer line, and a fire hydrant in the middle of a curve, there was probably going to be a public staircase.

Sam: Because if a city is going to retain ownership of a little slice of land, it’s probably going to want to pack it with as many public utilities as possible.

Roman: These little slices of land often snake between houses and yards, and that’s one of the great things about them. It’s exploring, getting really close to someone’s yard and house without actually trespassing.

Sam: But not everyone loves that these stairs are public. One set of stairs we came across was fenced off.

Charles: I’m not sure who put the gate up there. It’s another public staircase that was open to the public until quite recently.

Sam: Charles says that at night, sometimes the staircases can get used by people looking for a hidden place to do shady business. I suppose it’s possible that that could happen up here in the Pacific Palisades, but what seems more likely, at least in this case, is that someone fenced off the stairway to keep out the riffraff.

Charles: The staircases all go through residential districts, and because they go quite narrowly between homes, there are a number of staircases around the city that had been closed by the residents, against other residents, without any permission from the city.

Sam: Can they do that?

Charles: Well, they can’t do it legally.

Sam: Charles has managed to get some of these fences taken down by leaning on congressmen and city officials. Though some use less bureaucratic methods.

Charles: I know one fellow who just goes around with a bolt cutter and liberates the stairs.

Roman: We couldn’t confirm this, but I just love the thought of a guy going around in the dead of night with a pair of bolt cutters, liberating staircases. This is my kind of vigilante.
The idea of public access to the small spaces in between private property is, in and of itself, compelling. As is the allure of hidden passageways connecting neighborhoods across the city. But part of the magic of public stairways is that you just don’t see public construction devoted solely to pedestrians all that much anymore. They feel like going back in time when your feet connected you to everything around you.

Charles: L.A. is kind of a hard city to own. I don’t think people feel an intimate, personal connection to it the way that they might if they grew up in Boston or London. And I think part of that is that you’re in a car going past it so fast, that most of the city is just the name of an off-ramp. You don’t have any sense of who lives there, or why they live there, or what it would be like. And when you slow down and move at pedestrian pace, it gives you the opportunity to get a little more connected to it. I think anybody would want that. I think as human beings, that’s part of why we live in cities, why we live in communities.

Roman: If the streets are arteries, then the public walkways are the occasional capillaries. They can get so narrow that only one red blood cell can fit at a time. And when you encounter someone on the path, you’re forced to interact, to step to the side, maybe smile or nod. Also, it really feels like you’re trespassing. I can’t stress enough how fun that is.

Comments (14)

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  1. Since I am currently catching up on all the past episodes and the term is fresh in my mind, I have to ask if that is a “hubba” in the second picture? :)

  2. Tiffany Peter

    I was directed to this site by my husband, since I, too, work in an architecture office and I am slightly obsessed with the urban environment. Sorry if I’m a little behind the times, since I’m trying to catch up on past episodes, but I can’t help but think of the public stairs ALL OVER my hometown of Pittsburgh and how awesome they are to explore as well. Their history goes way back to the days of the steel mills and they are still a vital piece of the city’s infrastructure, since the topography here is still so prohibitive for cars. I strongly urge anyone who likes public stairs to look into the Steps of Pittsburgh :)

  3. A60

    The city of Pittsburgh has 712 staircases, most of which are considered legal streets and have names. Check out this book about them by Bob Regan and Tim Fabian, called “The Steps of Pittsburgh: Portrait of a City”.

  4. Matt Smuts

    California isn’t the only place with public stairs. Pittsburgh, PA also has an extensive (and amazing!) network of city steps (as we call them here). Just do a google image search to see pictures of Pittsburgh’s awesome steps. There is also a book by Bob Regan with photos by Tim Fabian that documents this wonderful asset that helps to make Pittsburgh such an awesome City.

  5. i have heard about these steps of pittsburg. Bog reagan counted over 712 individual sets of steps, including 44,645 risers, accounting for 24,108 vertical feet. Currently there are over 100 major stairways (having more than 100 individual steps each) documented on this CommunityWalk page

  6. but I can’t help but think of the public stairs ALL OVER my hometown of Pittsburgh and how awesome they are to explore as well. Their history goes way back to the days of the steel mills and they are still a vital piece of the city’s infrastructure, since the topography here is still so prohibitive for cars. I strongly urge anyone who likes public stairs to look into the Steps of Pittsburgh :)

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