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Photo: Emil Wesolowski

Places

Climb the secret stairs of Los Angeles

Around the hilly areas of Los Angeles, both urban explorers and fitness buffs climb the otherwise overlooked narrow stairways cutting between the buildings. Relics of the time before the city became clogged with cars, they’re an excellent means of discovering LA in an unexpected way – on foot.

The United States – specifically its terrain – has mostly been designed for car owners. Automobiles are so tightly woven into the modern fabric of this country that if you drill down into America’s soul, you’ll find oil spots on the carpet and the faint whiff of gasoline in the air. New York is the financial capital; Washington, DC, the center of power. But when you talk about how cars have shaped the land, LA is very much the capital. Few cities are as car-dominant as LA, with a network of multilane highways forming the city’s skeleton.

That traffic jams are part of the local culture is known throughout the world (and depicted in classic movies such as Falling Down and Office Space, both from the 1990s, not to mention that more recent smash hit La La Land). 

Whatever the case, LA clearly existed before the car became king. There was a time when many people there, and not just the very poorest, walked, rode the streetcars or took buses. There was a time when city planning even took account of the carless. A time when politicians took into account those who failed to own one, two or even three cars. You can still see signs of those times – in the form of stairways.

LA is hilly, (not as much as San Francisco, but it’s got its steep slopes) with many residences and neighborhoods clinging to the sides of steep slopes. Around the turn of the 20th century, when the city was growing like crazy, people needed to make their way to and from their homes without navigating serpentine routes. So stairways were built. Stairways that cut through housing areas on slopes – steep stairs rising almost vertically between houses and gardens. From the main streets, they run upwards, often divided into several flights, each consisting of hundreds of steps. Over 450 of these staircases remain in LA today. For the most part, they’re empty. No stay-at-homers or commuters, no housekeepers or gardeners. Just the stairs.  

A stairway expert

Stairway expert Charles FlemingCharles Fleming, a local writer who has written a book about LA’s stairways, says, “We don’t use them today. People drive cars wherever they want to go. They don’t see the city, or experience it. When I started walking, my whole relationship with LA changed. I started to love living here.”  

These often hidden stairs were constructed in the 1920s. Then came the Depression, and after that, World War II, when urban development came to a halt. In the postwar years, cars became more common and society underwent large-scale changes. Advances in mass transit were entirely abandoned in LA as cars became the mode of transportation this sprawling city chose to believe and invest in. As in most of the US, the auto-mobile triumphed. The stairways were forgotten.

Fleming has a bad back. His lower spine has been problematic for a long time. Two operations did not improve things, and a third was planned.
“But I couldn’t face it,” he says. He called his doctor and told him he wasn’t going through with the operation. He started walking instead.

Fleming soon noticed that walking made his back feel better. He began to go on daily treks around the Silver Lake area, where he had lived for decades. It was on these local walks that he came across his first stairways. And he started to climb them, up and down. Every day, he went out to discover more and more. There are around 50 of them in Silver Lake alone.
“I made up my mind to walk them all,” he says. 

"Before I started walking, I didn’t like LA that much. But via the stairways and walks, I began to get to know and love my city."

He researched the stairways, one by one. Neighbors began to recognize him and started asking him questions. Friends started joining him on these walks. He began talking to people about the neighborhoods, the stairways and their history. Gradually, Fleming acquired a fuller picture of his city’s history. He got to know the homes of famous authors, which star architects had designed them, who had lived there, what had happened there. 
“It changed my way of seeing the city. Before I started walking, I didn’t like LA that much. But via the stairways and walks, I began to get to know and love my city.”

Woman walking the Silver Lake’s stairways.

Unusual for LA, rain had just fallen, but now the sun is shining again. It smells of damp earth. A woman is wearing a straw hat that’s the same blue-green color as the enormous agave plant she’s passing on her step-by-step ascent. The agave rises as high as the adjacent garage. She’s one of the few people we meet on our morning climb up a couple of Silver Lake’s stairways. Like the others, this stairway is mostly traffic-free.

A new phenomenon in Santa Monica

But there’s one notable exception – the Santa Monica Stairs. Locals Kelly Vogt and Alina Costin are standing at the top. They’re dressed in gym wear and jogging shoes, caps and sunglasses.
“You think there’s a lot of people here now? You should see it on the weekend. It’s horrible then,” Vogt says. “It’s really heaving; some people walk so slowly, it gets jammed, it’s crazy.”

“One guy usually climbs up and down on his hands,” Costin adds.

For some reason, the Santa Monica Stairs in particular have become a de facto outdoor gym. People come here (by car, obviously), not only from the neighborhood, but from farther afield, to walk or run up and down the stairs as a form of exercise – a phenomenon that has led to a hyper-local conflict. Soon after the trend started, residents in the houses around here started feeling disturbed by the loud, sweaty, trash-leaving, sidewalk-push-up-performing hordes. It went so far that they turned to the City Council, demanding it to “Close the stairs. We’ve had enough.” 

"One guy usually climbs up and down on his hands"

Other stairways have been closed. Such as the one behind a liquor store on Sunset Boulevard – in an area beset with “drugs, liquor and sex,”  as Fleming put it. 

People working out on the popular Santa Monica stairs.

But the Santa Monica Stairs won’t be closed. The city would be unable to force that through. Those stairs are part of the local Office of Emergency Management’s Tsunami Response Plan – and must be kept open to the public.

California today is a progressive corner of the US, and one of the most important Democratic strongholds. The state is actively striving to become more and more environmentally friendly, as is the city of LA – where an expanded Metro system is now under construction. An infrastructure for transportation other than cars is something the powers that be are contemplating. So maybe the stairways will soon enjoy a wide-scale renaissance.

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