Nobody Drives in LA — Public Stairways, Stair Streets, and Walk Streets of Los Angeles

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Nobody Drives in LA

Los Angeles was built around the walker. During the Last Glacial Period, the first humans arrived in Southern California, almost certainly by foot. As the glaciers receded, both these stone-age Paleoamericans and their non-human neighbors carved and shared trails through the green woodland, wetland, grassland, desert, and chaparral landscapes. Some 10,000 years later, the Tongva arrived in the region, having made their way on foot from the Sonoran Desert to the east. Both the Tongva and the Chumash, who lived here 10,000 years before them, used plank canoes to traverse the Pacific and feet to cross the land.

When the Spanish arrived some 3,000 years later, they brought with them horses but surely did a fair amount of walking too. Just as the Italians have the passegiatta, the Spanish, have their own customary evening stroll — the paseo. The Spanish definitely brought that custom with them to the Americas. The most famous street in Mexico City is, after all, called “Paseo de la Reforma.” The most significant Tongva road, which connected the village of Yaangna to the Pacific coast, was known to the Spanish as “Calle de los Indios.” The route is still used today, although we now know it as Wilshire Boulevard.

Local historians, when discussing Wilshire, inevitably remark on its car-centric structural orientation — exemplified by the distinctive architecture forms of the old department stores located along the Miracle Mile. Strangely, however, none ever seems to point out that Gaylord Wilshire‘s titular road actually appeared on maps at least two years before the first gasoline-powered “motor tally-ho” noisily puttered along Los Angeles’s streets. For decades after its introduction, the automobile remained little more than a plaything for the ruling class — a noisy novelty for nobs. Its main improvement over the horse was that it traded smelly “road apples” for cancerous and climate-calamitous clouds of exhaust. It wasn’t really until the 1920s that average Angelenos took to the stink chariot — before that, they mostly rode streetcars, trains, bicycles, and walked.

Pedestrians in downtown Los Angeles in the early 1900s with Grand Ave. trolley car in background.
Downtown Los Angeles in the early 1900s

Before the ruinous rise of the freeway, Angelenos were served by streets, many of which were paved thanks to the advocacy of wheelmen. Los Angeles was also famously home to the largest electric interurban rail network the world has ever known, the Pacific Electric Railway. There was also — and still is — a fairly large network of pedestrian-oriented streets in the form of walkways and public stairways. Many of the former are concentrated in the Westside neighborhood of Venice. Public stairways — including house-lined stair streets — are spread throughout the Elysian Hills of Mideast Los Angeles (MELA) and the San Rafael and Repetto Hills of Northeast Los Angeles (NELA). 

Downtown Los Angeles April 1910
A few cars push through crowds of walkers in Downtown Los Angeles, 1910

Nearly all of the public stairways were created in the 1920s. Many bear the stamp of the contractors who constructed them and the year in which they were built. It’s often said that they were used not just to navigate the city on foot but to access mass transit routes operated by the likes of Pacific Electric and the Los Angeles Railway — both of which ended operation in the mid-1960s. By the 1980s, Los Angeles’s public stairways were little used — apparently forgotten by the overwhelmingly car-dependent populace. According to Ice Cube, the “RTD” in the region’s bus provider, SCRTD, stood not for, informally, not for “Rapid Transit District” but “Rough, Tough, and Dangerous.” The first new rail line — the Blue Line (now the A Line) didn’t begin operation until 1990 and the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority wouldn’t come into being until 1993. Some of the public stairways were even gated, using an “irrevocable permit,” which allows the city to close a street temporarily under Vacation of Street Process and state law Section 37359, passed in 1949, which states that:

Unless otherwise provided by law, the legislative body having control of any property owned or controlled by the city may at any time withdraw the property from the personal access and use of members of the public, or limit the access or use in area or time or in any other reasonable manner deemed necessary. Any person thereafter using the property without permission or in a manner other than that prescribed is a trespasser. This section does not limit or restrict any person from access or use who has a private right in the property.

However, in 1994, in Citizens Against Gated Enclaves v. Whitley Heights Civic Assn., a California court of appeal ruled that gating streets — including public stairways — to prevent some members of public from accessing them whilst allowing other access was unlawful. Nevertheless, many of these gated stair-streets have remained “temporarily” closed now for roughly 30 years.

Freeway Protest 1947
A Los Angeles Freeway protest in 1947

Whilst I can sympathize with fearful Angelenos living near these illegally closed stairs, I suspect that some of their fears might be assuaged were they to talk to those who live near the many more which remain open to the public. I might also try to prevail to their grasp of logic and reason — after all, every street is the site of illegal activity. Has any motorist ever completed a trip, no matter how short, without even once exceeding the speed limit or rolling through a stop sign? Would they have the city close all of those streets as well? I’m sure there are more reasonable solutions. The public stair I use most often is illuminated at night with motion-activated lights. I don’t have a problem with that — in fact, it’s helpful. What’s more, the more foot traffic a street — including a stair street — attracts, the safer the street usually is. It’s time to re-open them all. Please consider contacting the appropriate city councilperson to discuss their “review” process of these illegally-seized public assets.

In the 1970s, it seems, Angelenos began jogging, surfing, and skateboarding in large numbers. All are, interestingly, ostensibly related to mobility and yet when practiced under normal conditions, not really about going anywhere. In other words, joggers, surfers, and skaters are much more likely to jog, surf, or skate in circles (or some other shape) than they are from point A to point B.

How to jog
“How To Jog” instructions provided in the first edition of Popeye

In 1976, a glossy Japanese magazine targeting the “city boy” subculture, Popeye, made its debut. The inaugural issue (of which I naturally own a reprinted copy) is largely dedicated to training an ethnographic eye on the strange customs of exotic Angelenos. There’s even a “How to Jog” guide.

Recreational walking was seemingly slower to take off. In 1982, Los Angeles band Missing Persons famously assured us in their 1982 hit song, “Walking in L.A.,” that “nobody walks in L.A.” Two years later, San Francisco walking advocate Adah Bakalinsky published Stairway Walks in San Francisco in 1984. In 1990, she and Larry Gordon followed with Stairway Walks in Los Angeles. It is debatable which was more ground-breaking — the realization that it might be enjoyable to walk in Los Angeles or the existence of a San Franciscan willing to even acknowledge the existence of Southern California. (In 2015, I visited three bookstores in San Francisco and Berkely. Not one of them had a single book about Southern California in their “California” sections).

Before long, there were homegrown Los Angeles walking advocates. Angels Walk LA (for whom I sometimes write) began developing self-guided walking tours in 1996. Deborah Murphy founded the pedestrian advocacy group, Los Angeles Walks, in 1998.

When living in cities, I’ve always preferred walking, cycling, and mass transit to driving. Cars, I think, should be reserved for long road trips — and it’s better to rent than own. Of course, this has sometimes put me at odds with friends and neighbors in Los Angeles, more than one of whom has described a block as being “too far to walk.” In fact, I’ve had two roommates (both Southern California natives) who regularly opted to drive rather than walk to a restaurant or convenience store located one block away. It’s not just Southern California natives, though. I’ve also encountered neighbors in businesses located a block away who I saw drive there. When I expressed shock to one, a transplant from Philadelphia she said, “I know, I’m lazy.” The other, an immigrant from Thailand, said that walking a block was “too far!”

When I first moved to Los Angeles in 1999, I once walked, rather than drove, to return a VHS to CineFile. A walk of just 4.5 kilometers, it was hardly Herculean, but to my friends it was unfathomable. They asked their neighbors whether they’d seen me. Had I been abducted? I was neither in their home nor my car, which was parked out front — so where could I possibly be and — without a car — how could I possibly have gotten there? When I told them I’d walked, they scolded me and told me I was being irresponsible.

Landa Stairs
Landa Stairs

When I worked at Amoeba, I often walked to and from the store — a round-trip journey of fourteen or so kilometers. It was, admittedly, a pretty long daily walk but provided me with a pleasant two hours of exercise and reading time (I read a couple of rather thick novels along the way). Meanwhile, next to the record store is a gym to which people drive and take and the parking garage elevator just so that they can avoid walking or bicycling outside on their way to walk or ride something like a bicycle without actually going anywhere.

Curran Stairs
Curran Stairs

Angelenos seem to have stopped freaking out about walkers in the 2000s — at least as long as it was treated as some sort of endurance test. In 2006, Michael Schneider inaugurated the first Great Los Angeles Walk, a roughly 29-kilometer walk across Los Angeles that takes place the day before each Thanksgiving and went on to found Streets for All.  In 2008, Bob Inman published A Guide to the Public Stairways of Los Angeles and afterward began leading regular walks in Los Angeles. Also in 2008, Dan Koeppel organized Stair Trek, a roughly 37-kilometer urban hike that incorporates about 90 public stairways. The following year, Koeppel organized the first Big Parade — a two-day 55-kilometer Los Angeles walk that incorporates roughly 80 public stairways and happens each May.  In 2013, at the urging of hikers Andrew Lichtman and Ying Chen, and created the Inman 300 — a 350-kilometer, ten-day hike that incorporates roughly 300 public stairways. That same year, Dan Gutierrez started the walking group, SoCal Stair Climbers. In 2015, Paul Haddad published 10,000 Steps a Day in L.A.: 52 Walking Adventures. In 2019 and 2020, Los Angeles Walks organized four walks along the original 1781 borders of Los Angeles called the LA 4 Corners.

Angelus Stairs
Angelus Stairs

Not every walk needs to be an epic and those detailed by Los Angeles Times columnist Charles Fleming‘s Secret Stairs: A Walking Guide to the Historic Staircases of Los Angeles, are more like haikus. Bob Inman returned in 2014 with the comprehensive guide, Finding Los Angeles By Foot: Stairstreet, bridge, pathway and lane. Fleming returned to the subject of urban walking with Secret Walks: A Walking Guide to the Hidden Trails of Los Angeles. That same year saw the publication of David Ulin‘s ruminative Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles.

Ivan Hill Stairs
Ivan Hill Stairs

I was, a few years ago, commissioned by the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council to paint a map of all of the public stairways and stair streets in the district. More recently, I’ve begun working on another, related project. It struck me the other day that I might as well attempt to make a map of ALL of I decided the other day to make a map of Pedestrian Los Angeles — if not every single pedestrian amenity. In other words, I haven’t included every sidewalk, trail, or desire line. I haven’t even included every walk street, public stairway, or stair street — although that is the goal. This is a map in progress. If you have any suggestions, please leave them in the comments and I will attempt to add them when time permits.

NOTES ON PUBLIC STAIRWAY NAMES 

Most public stairways in Los Angeles don’t have names. A few, like Radio Walk in Franklin Hills, are marked by street signs. Some are assigned names in recognition of their historic or cultural associations — for example Esther’s Steps, Music Box Steps, and the Mattachine Steps. When I was commissioned a few years ago to map some of the stairs for the city, I found out that the vast majority not only don’t have official names — they don’t necessarily have settled colloquial ones. I, therefore, when appropriate, have referred to them by hyphenating the streets that they connect, named in alphabetical order. I’ve provided stair counts on many — which also sometimes vary — I suppose because curbs and landings call into question for the counter what, exactly, constitutes a step. I suppose the exact count is of great perceived importance to pedants but I personally am more interested than the people who built them and therefore have included the contractor and year built when those facts are known to me.


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Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRWWhich Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubiand Twitter.

Art Prints

 

 

 

7 thoughts on “Nobody Drives in LA — Public Stairways, Stair Streets, and Walk Streets of Los Angeles

    1. I read lots, actually! I remember Don Quixote and the Tale of Genji especially — because they’re long and took numerous walks to read. Honestly, when I first started walking to and from work, I couldn’t help but notice how many people were walking around looking at their phones and figured I might as well look at a book instead. The idea of getting mugged never even crossed my mind — I was more worried about tripping and falling or stepping on dog poop — neither of which ever happened, thankfully.

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  1. This is Angelino gold! Ive been searching for an interactive map of urban staircases in LA. However I can’t figure out how to access this map. When I expand it it redirects to google maps but there are no landmarks. Can you please share the map with a link instead? Hopefully that will work!

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      1. Hello. So the default base map that I’m using on this one doesn’t depict much except for the streets because the stair streets tend to get lost if there’s a lot of detail. However, if you look beneath “Public Stairways, Walkways, Stair Streets, &c” and “Neighborhoods” on the bottom left, you should see a square to the left of the message “made with Google maps.” If you click on that, it should change the map to the satellite version which might be helpful.

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