Charles Fleming is an L.A.-based journalist and author. Recently he agreed to sit down and tell the story of his best-selling urban trekking guide Secret Stairs: A Walking Guide to the Historic Staircases of Los Angeles.
“My first exposure to the staircases was as a kid in Pacific Palisades. My family had moved there from the South in 1966 when I was 10. Surfing, skateboarding, everything I’d seen on TV. And these public staircases I now know were built during the Depression. So my first exposure to the stairs was as a kid using them as they were designed to be used, which was as a way to cut down or up the hill to the beach.
I never thought about them again till decades later when we were living in Silver Lake.
At point I’d lived in L.A. maybe forty years and I still felt quite ambivalent about it. It’s too big, it moves too fast, there are too many people, the traffic is awful, the whole Hollywood thing, which I’d covered for years for Variety, Newsweek, Vanity Fair, the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, seemed like this greedy, soulless pit of despair.
Even though my two daughters had grown up here and loved L.A., and my wife was a native and loved L.A., my feeling was I could walk away very easily without a backward glance.
Then I got sick. I had a series of calamitous medical emergencies. Two hip replacements, two spinal surgeries. I couldn’t drive, couldn’t work, couldn’t eat. Miserable. On pain meds. I found if I get could upright and walk ten feet, though, the walking relieved the pressure on my spinal column. We live in the steep hills of Silver Lake and I’d literally have my wife drive me down to a flat stretch of street and I’d walk a block before she’d pick me up and bring me home. Then the next day it was two blocks, then three. Pretty soon I was walking ten blocks, then a mile. I started to incorporate a bit of hills.
Then I started noticing, These old concrete staircases are everywhere! What are they? Where do they go? I detest exercise and will not do what’s good for me. I needed an ulterior motive. So I decided to make a quest to find all the staircases in Silver Lake and map them. I thought there were 12 or 15. Turned out there were 55. That was just Silver Lake.
By this time, I was feeling healthy. I’d started to work again, drive again. I was walking an hour a day, sometimes two. I’d struck out into Echo Park. I started wondering about what I was walking through and researching the history of Los Angeles.
In the teens and twenties L.A. was still a public transportation-dependent city. Electric trolley lines were being extended from downtown into steep, hilly areas with curvy streets: Silver Lake, Echo Park, Hollywood, Highland Park, Eagle Rock. They figured out pretty quickly that with a series of staircases, the kids could walk down the hill to school, Mom could get down to the market, Dad could get down to catch the trolley to work. So the staircases had a heyday. Then post-Depression, L.A. became a car-dependent city and the streetcar lines started to be developed less and less and finally were dismantled entirely.
I started wondering as well about the history of Silver Lake and Echo Park. I’d think, That’s a great-looking house. I wonder who built it? Rudolph Schindler, it turned out. I discovered that Roy Disney had an office here or Tom Mix used to shoot movies there or William Faulkner lived in that house while he was writing “To Have and Have Not.” All of that ended up in Secret Stairs.
I’d never moved slowly enough to appreciate the views, the architecture, the history. I’d never discovered the varieties of jasmine and hibiscus, the different tones of bougainvillea, the astonishing variety of pine trees and oak trees.
One thing led to another and I ended up mapping the entire city. Making these loopy walks, modelled on the country pub walks of England and Ireland.
I’ve had a first-Sunday-of-the-month morning walking group for five years. People come up to me and say, “I’ve lived in L.A. for decades, I never know you could see downtown from the top of that hill” or “I had no idea that house was built by John Lautner.” A guy with tears in his eyes told me he’d lost 90 pounds walking the stairs and had started dating. Couples have fallen in love again because they’re walking the stairs three nights a week. People are in business together because they met on the stairs and started chatting. For a lot of people this has turned out to be a community.
It’s hard to experience a city at 60 mph and it’s also hard to experience other human beings at 60 mph. Through the stairs, I’ve walked my way into a love affair with the city of Los Angeles.”
For more info, visit the Secret Stairs FB page