Taking stairs in Los Angeles? No way. It’s a car culture. There was a time, however, when residents happily walked up and down stairs in Los Angeles to either pace up or down to a trolley stop or light rail, or to traverse a mostly hillside neighborhood. Those stairs might be largely forgotten today except for a rather atypical book that brings them back to vivid life. It allows both residents and visitors to discover the secret stairs of Los Angeles.
In fact, written by Charles Fleming, Secret Stairs: A Walking Guide to the Historical Staircases of Los Angeles, can be viewed as a multi-purpose book . It is a historical book with eye-popping discoveries. It is a valuable tour guide for both visitors and residents. It is also a workout volume of sorts since one will certainly improve their cardiovascular rating by taking these walks. Each amble, for example, has a sidebar that notes duration, distance, number of steps and degree of difficulty from 1 (easy) to 5 (difficult).
Fleming is a well-respected journalist and author who still contributes to the Los Angeles Times, where he pens a column on local hikes. He is a former staff writer for Newsweek, Variety and the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and also contributes to the New York Times. He wrote the book High Concept: Don Simpson and the Hollywood Culture of Success.
Fleming says he first got the idea for the book when he was living in the Silver Lake district of Los Angeles. He began exploring his own neighborhood, discovered some public staircases, and soon he became an urban Magellan as one secret stairs of Los Angeles led to another.
Eventually, he says, he walked, measured, studied and photographed and mapped more than 275 secret staircases in Los Angeles spanning the areas from Pasadena to the east and Pacific Palisades to the west.
The result is this book which contains the cream of the crop: 42 secret stairs staircase walks divided into five chapters.
The real fun, of course, are the discoveries the walks provide and unraveling the history one never knew or forgot existed in Los Angeles.
For example, on the two- and-a-half-mile, 705 step Music Box Loop walk in Silver Lake, one encounters a famous movie location. In 1932 comedians Laurel and Hardy made a short film called The Music Box where they had to push a piano up a steep flight of steps. The stairs are still there.
On the one hour, 370 step Silver Lake Circles walk, an urban trekker will pass a house that acclaimed crime novelist Raymond Chandler used to live in.
On the one hour, 304 step Whitley Heights walk one passes the apartment building where novelist William Faulkner worked on the screenplays of The Big Sleep and To Have and Have Not.
On the one hour and fifteen minute 3.2 mile, 518 steps Pacific Palisades Castellammare walk, one passes the former home of actress Thelma Todd whose body was found on December 16, 1935 slumped over the front seat of her car. Todd appeared in some 40 films including the Marx Brothers Horse Feathers and Monkey Business. The death was caused by carbon monoxide poisoning but there was always an air of suspicion surrounding the death because of blood found on her lip. To this day, the circumstances remain a mystery,
It is fair to say that if one took all these walks during the course of a year, they would be more knowledgeable about Los Angeles than most long time residents. It is chock full of historical tidbits about the history of the City of Angels.
Fleming has now branched out and gone north to write a similar tome about the secret staircases of the Oakland and Berkely sections of the San Francisco area.
The book has also spawned a smart phone app. Just released is the Silver Lake app which details walks in that section of Los Angeles. One doesn’t even have to lug around a conventional book anymore as they discover the secret staircases of Los Angeles. Walking in Los Angeles. Who knew?
Editorial by Jim McCullaugh
Los Angeles Times