LAX: Taking the stairs

Lovely hidden stairs on Silver Lake/Temple and Hoover

This is an LA story I’ve told so many times, in so many forms, over and over on this blog that some of you might already be sighing in exasperation… Oh god, not another story about the stairs. Again? You like to walk, you go up, you go down, WE GET IT!

But the stairs have been such a huge part of my first Los Angeles decade, leaving them out would be like not mentioning the fact that I have a potentially diagnosable addiction to a certain Italian dessert. Wait, I’ve never mentioned that?

The best part about today’s story is that I have this whole narrative so well-documented online that I can actually link you to a bunch of stories. So I’ll start at the beginning.

It was the weekend after the Clarissa incident. I had just moved to LA. After examining a map of the area between my house and Griffith Park, where the streets looked so haphazard it was as if they were drawn by a three-year-old, I decided to brave a run, hoping that I didn’t take a wrong turn and disappear somewhere in Bronson Canyon (this was before iPhones, my friends). I headed west towards a street named Hollyridge and started the slow climb uphill until I saw something that made me stop cold, in the middle of the street, gawking in disbelief. A set of cement steps. And at the top of those? Another set. I remember standing at the top of this infrastructural wormhole, feeling like I had casually hiked into Narnia.

I became obsessed, photographing and mapping all the stairs I could find near me, and looking online for some kind of LA stair directory. I didn’t find that, but came across a Backpacker story written by one Dan Koeppel, who had created a series of routes in his Silver Lake-Echo Park neighborhood. So naturally, I reached out to Dan, who took me on an abbreviated version of the walks he led for a small group of friends and neighbors. He casually mentioned that he wanted to try and plan a mega-walk that would connect his routes with stairs he knew about in downtown, Los Feliz, Franklin Hills, and yes, Hollywood.

In 2009, Dan organized the Big Parade, a two-day, 40-mile, 120-stairway hike from Angels Flight to the Hollywood sign, and easily one of my favorite weekends of the year. That first year I walked (almost all of) the Big Parade, but had to bail early due to a wonky knee. The next year, I not only finished the Big Parade, I realized it wasn’t a race, and actually stopped to look around me. And that brings me to this year’s Big Parade, when we actually finished all 40 miles before sunset on the second day (and then had time for margaritas!).

But that wasn’t all. Because the stairs were originally built to connect residents to LA’s once-massive train system, stairwalking became a great way to get people excited about transit advocacy. I added Dan to a panel I organized on alternative transportation at the Dwell conference. I worked the stairs into talks that I gave and featured them at events that I threw. Heck, I moved to a house where I actually have to walk up and down stairs to get to most of my services, including the bus. (Now I have no choice but to subject all out-of-towners to at least one staircase per visit.)

As I was ascending and descending in my own little stair-lined world, something crazy happened. Stairwalking got HOT. The Big Parade now grows to 200+ walkers during its three-day excursion. Stairs have been featured on the local news. You might know about Charles Fleming’s tremendously popular book Secret Stairswell, now he’s launched a column in the LA Times called, yes, LA Walks.

I think the next year could be a watershed moment for stairwalking. And with the August heat abating (I hope), the stairwalking season is about to begin. Here’s how to step in.

  • Start by heading to the Facebook page of the incredible Robert Inman, who wrote The Guide to the Stairways of Los Angeles (buy it!) and who leads some of the best stairwalks in the entire city. He’s just posted four incredible itineraries that kick off September 10 with some unusual destinations like the Pacific Palisades and his famous Mt. Washington Stairways + Beer.
  • Dan’s practice walks for The Big Parade also start in September, with twice-a-month itineraries including the legendary Tomato Pie Walk that ends with the best stairwalking incentive: pizza. Just join The Big Parade on Facebook for updates. Last year I filled in for Dan with an architecture-themed practice walk through Silver Lake, which I will definitely be doing again this year, or perhaps a walk of my old neighborhood, the Hightower area near the Hollywood Bowl.
  • And you can join the Los Angeles Stairstreet Advocates to stay on top of the latest walks but also to get involved in some of the issues around maintaining and opening stairways around the city. There’s also a movement to map and name all the stairways—a step-by-step inventory, if you will—and get all of them added to Google Maps so they show up when you choose pedestrian mode. This group is run by the great Dave Ptach, who lives on one of the most unique stairstreets in the city in Fellowship Park (part of it is made from wood!).

So as you can see, I need to devote 48% of all posts on this blog to stairwalking. The stairs have irrevocably changed the path of my LA life. They’ve helped me see my city in a new way. They’ve given me fodder for dozens of articles. They made me evolve from a sometimes-driving-stair-enthusiast to a bus-riding-pedestrian-advocate. And perhaps most importantly, they’ve introduced me to a whole new group of friends.

This would never had happened if I hadn’t been walking down a street by my house with eager feet and open eyes. For me, it was cement steps, but for you, it could be anything, a secret garden, a mysterious building, an old weathered sign, that sends you on an life-changing adventure. I encourage you to try to find the “stairs” in your neighborhood. Maybe even this weekend.

What hidden-in-plain-sight LA secrets have you uncovered?

I’m celebrating ten years in LA with ten days of LA stories. Go here for more LAX.

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