“Think of it as an urban hike,” Dan Gutierrez told a group of rain-jacketed people who'd gathered at Sunset Triangle Plaza last Saturday morning. At 8:30 a.m. these dedicated and damp urban hikers withstood the drizzle to participate in Gutierrez’s second Painted Stairways Tour, a 6.7-mile group walk through the hills of Silver Lake that included 10 public stairways. Many of the stairs have been decorated in brightly colored paint by local artists.
Gutierrez is a stair-walking aficionado. A satellite engineer whose day job involves long hours of government work, he uses his free time and weekends to climb, map and explore Los Angeles’ numerous public “stair streets.” From Long Beach to Silver Lake, it would be hard to find a public stairway in the Greater L.A. area that Gutierrez hasn’t climbed. He has walked the infamous urban trail known as the Inman 300 and, after some quick mental calculations, estimates he probably climbs more than 100,000 steps a year on average. “I just fell in love with stair walking,” he says matter-of-factly.
Gutierrez was an endurance cyclist and bike advocate for 21 years before friends introduced him to stair walking. At first, he started exploring L.A.’s stair streets with the help of maps generated by stair-walking gurus Dan Koeppel and Bob Inman. Soon Gutierrez started using satellite imagery and google maps to explore and map new routes in his home town of Long Beach. In 2013, he started a group called SoCal Stair Climbers and began leading his own walks.
For Gutierrez and other stair walkers, camaraderie and community are a big part of what keeps them climbing. He and his friends from the SoCal Stair Climbers group have walked thousands of miles together over the years. Gutierrez loves the challenge of mapping new routes and gets creative with his walks, organizing themed tours like the “Tomato Pie” and “The Sicilian,” both named after pizzas at a favorite stop in Franklin Hills.
In February, Gutierrez decided to create a new stair walk that incorporated all of Silver Lake’s brightly painted stairwells. He posted the event on Facebook expecting to get a typical response of 20 to 50 participants. But the Painted Stairways Tour went unexpectedly viral. RSVPs climbed into the thousands. Gutierrez was shocked. There was no way he could safely lead a group of over 1,000 people on a walk through Silver Lake.
As a trained engineer, Gutierrez is a problem solver. He quickly developed a solution to the problem of too many stair walkers. He shortened the route to make it more accessible, added several dates and offered a limited number of free tickets to each tour through Eventbrite. He also enlisted longtime stair-walking friends and a handful of Boy Scouts to help with crowd control. He and his volunteers successfully led a group of 90 walkers on the first Painted Stairways Tour on March 26. Thanks to Saturday's wet weather, the second group was smaller, though the third tour — scheduled for April 24 — has already sold out.
Like the Pied Piper of stair walkers, Gutierrez led his group through the mist last Saturday with enthusiasm. He is knowledgeable about the history of pedestrian transportation in Los Angeles. He knows his routes by heart. His crowd-management techniques are smooth and practiced. The group was a mix of experienced stair walkers and newbies. Some of us huffed and puffed more than others, but all of us were ravenous after four hours of intense stair climbing. Lunch plans dominated conversations on the 10th and final stairwell of the tour.
Gutierrez has taken the time not only to meticulously map the tour’s route but also to track down and contact the four artists who painted the majority of the stairs on the tour. When they are available, Corinne Carrey, Kimberly King, Evelyn Leigh and Ricardo Mendoza meet the group at their respective stairways and talk about their artwork.
Artist Carrey spoke at the beginning of the walk. Her piano-key stairwell and the hearts she added to the Micheltorena stairs are quickly becoming iconic. Her stair-painting tactics are guerrilla. With the help of some good friends, Carrey painted the steps at night to avoid attention or getting in any trouble. (You can see pictures of her “slightly illegal” painting excursions by following her on Instagram at @corrinecarrey.)
Why paint piano keys on a random outdoor stairwell? To add color and change the vibe in an area that is sometimes plagued by homelessness and violence, Carrey says. It’s also just “for you,” the stair climber, she points out. Maybe you are exercising or maybe you just happen upon them, but the paint is there to brighten your day as you climb. The piano-key design in particular was a nod to her father, who “was a total '80s synth player.”
Evelyn Leigh’s geometric contributions to the face of the Swan Stairs are a more officially sanctioned art project (she painted them at the request of the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council using donated paint). Likewise, muralist Ricardo Mendoza’s contribution — the stunning “Fluid City Rising” mural on the Hoover Stairs — was made possible by active neighborhood volunteers.
All of the stairwells on the tour are technically pedestrian city streets, but various individuals and neighborhoods can and have adopted some of them. Keeping them clean is a labor of love.
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If you’re lucky enough to snag a ticket to one of Gutierrez’s Painted Stairway Tours, expect to break a sweat, bond with new friends and gain a deeper appreciation for the way Angelenos navigated their city pre-automobile. The art is inspiring, and so are the stunning views of the Silver Lake hills you likely wouldn’t notice or encounter from a car window. If it’s raining, climb anyway. You’ll be glad around step 200 that the skies are offering you cool shade rather than hot sun.
Even if you don’t get a ticket to one of Gutierrez’s events, you can follow his lead virtually and tackle the steps on your own time. All of his stair-walking routes are available to follow via Google Maps. You won’t get lost. Unsurprisingly, this satellite engineer is a careful and detailed cartographer. Bathroom stops, painted stairways, watering holes and recommended pizza shops are all carefully tagged. All you have to do is climb. And climb. And climb.