“Here's the beer bottles, here's the toilet paper,” says Charles Fleming, gesturing to one side as we make our way down a thin concrete staircase set into the Echo Park hillside. An arms length away, the stairs border an elaborate terraced garden, one of the many private yards, decks and driveways in Los Angeles easily accessible from a public stairway.
When Fleming was compiling his 2010 L.A. Times bestseller Secret Stairs, a comprehensive guide to the nearly 450 public staircases built in the first decades of the 20th century to connect residents of hilly neighborhoods with public schools and transportation, he often encountered NIMBY-minded homeowners afraid the book would puncture the secluded bubble wealthy Angelenos seem to value so highly.
“Don't worry,” he would tell them. “There's not going to be a big parade. Nobody's doing this but me.”
And yet barely two years after the book's publication, thousands of people — many of whom are young and eager for recession-proof leisure activities — have discovered the voyeuristic pleasures of urban hiking, enjoying access to views and neighborhoods that otherwise require a fat paycheck and a mortgage.
Though Fleming argues that the increased hiker presence will scare litterbugs, the homeless and other undesirables off the stairways, many neighbors are crossing their fingers, hoping that their neighborhood doesn't transform into the dreaded Fourth Street and Adelaide steps in Santa Monica, the most popular stairs in L.A.
Every day, hundreds of people in shorts and headphones hustle up and down these two sets of narrow public stairs connecting Ocean and Entrada at the bottom of the canyon with Adelaide Drive, a quiet residential street lined with multimillion-dollar homes.
Signs posted between the two staircases on Adelaide have taken on a tone of desperation, urging exercisers to try the stairs in Palisades Park or Rustic Canyon, to quiet down, to pick up after themselves, to stay on the sidewalk or risk being hit by a car.
Tom Baker has lived just off these stairs for the past thirty-five years, and his driveway passes through a landing about halfway up. When the spot turned into a public gymnasium in the early nineties, he tried to resist the invasion alongside his neighbors, lobbying the city to shut down the stairs and restrict parking on Adelaide to residents, among other requests.
“Your trainer screaming directions at four o'clock in the morning is certainly a violation of anybody's right to privacy. It's a terrible nuisance,” he told me.
But between the Coastal Commission's decision that the stairs are a key evacuation route in the event of a tsunami and the fact that the top half of the staircase is in Santa Monica and the bottom in Los Angeles, attempts to regulate or close the stairs have been met with considerable red tape. After many years of fruitless arguing with the city, Baker has resigned himself to the situation and advises neighbors of the up and coming hiking destinations popularized by Fleming to do the same.
Fleming himself admits that getting the city to care about keeping the staircases clean and safe can be an uphill battle, especially as stair-adjacent residents are technically responsible for clearing garbage and brush themselves, according to the Bureau of Street Services, the Bureau of Engineering and the Department of Sanitation, all of which claim to not be responsible.
After I explained to Amy Conroy, whose deck and backyard border the top section of the Landa steps in Silver Lake, that she is the clean-up crew she has been waiting for, I asked whether she would be willing to pitch in.
“If I was given proper back-up!” she responded, explaining that her fear of dodgy characters lurking on the unlit stairway sometimes outweighs her appreciation of an idiosyncratic historical gem. “I don't feel like it's safe to let my kids go in the backyard alone,” she said.
Neighbors from stairways throughout the city told stories of mysterious late-night scuffles, rapists and muggers who used the stairs to trap victims and homeless people squatting under a deck or behind a garage.
Bobby Hill, LAPD's senior lead officer for Echo Park/Elysian Valley, agreed that staircase neighbors are disproportionately vulnerable to crime. The Northeast Community Police Station, which covers two to three hundred thousand people, receives at least two to three calls a day regarding stairways.
“Where there's a higher concentration of known gang members [in Echo Park], they use those stairs to conduct their business,” Hill said, citing numerous examples off the top of his head of drug dealers and car thieves who took advantage of the cover provided by the stairs to commit crimes or escape the police.
“That's a hell of a head start, especially if they know the routes,” he said. “It does make apprehending them very, very difficult.”
As we head down the Micheltorena steps in Silver Lake, Fleming laughs as he realizes the Department of Sanitation, which has agreed to remove bulky objects blocking the stairways, has yet to pick up the couch and easy chair that he complained about last week, which are currently occupied by a few unsavory-smelling loiterers, one of whom croaks a “Hey man,” as we pass by.
“I mean gosh, look, we're right here in everybody's front yard,” Fleming said, as we passed through a narrow walk-street off of Sunset Boulevard. “I'm going to go over here and pick their avocado.”
He was joking, but he easily could have.
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