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Bruin Guide to Secret Sights

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By Michael Stone, Patty Park '91 and Maureen Brogan

Published Apr 1, 2014 8:00 AM


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Tours by author Charles Fleming include classic houses and even ocean vistas. Photo by Angie Smith.

Stairways to Old L.A.

It’s hard to believe that streetcars and trolleys used to run throughout L.A., a place now renowned for its zealous car culture. But scattered throughout the city are more than 400 hidden public stairways, many built before the 1920s, that once helped people walk quickly between hillside homes and schools or transit lines.

“These staircases are walkways into old Los Angeles, into neighborhoods that people don’t even know are there,” says Charles Fleming ’78, author of the Los Angeles Times bestseller Secret Stairs: A Walking Guide to the Historic Staircases of Los Angeles. “They’re kind of tucked away and don’t show up on most city maps.”

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Author Charles Fleming. Photo by Angie Smith.

Fleming recently introduced a group of urban explorers to portions of the Music Box Loop — a 2.5-mile walk totaling 705 steps, beginning at a hip Cuban bakery in Silver Lake. With café con leche in hand, the group ascends the Music Box Steps, where Laurel and Hardy comically pushed up a piano in their 1932 Academy Award-winning short film, The Music Box. This is just one of 42 stairway hikes that Fleming has stitched together in his book, using 250 stairways. Each walk is rated on a difficulty level from 1 to 5. The peaceful Pasadena–La Loma Road hike offers elegant staircases and shaded oak trees. The monster Pacific Palisades–Giant Steps walk goes by an abandoned compound built by an American Nazi sympathizer and ends with a whopping 512-step staircase. One of Fleming’s favorites, the Castellammare walk, includes scenic ocean vistas. Others offer a glimpse of restored Victorian and Queen Anne homes, Frank Lloyd Wright masterpieces and old Hollywood intrigue.

“Each walk is peppered with groovy nuggets of history,” says Fleming, who works as an editor at the Los Angeles Times. “Who designed that house? What famous person lived here? What was writer William Faulkner working on when he had an apartment in that building?”

The staircases also connect to a sense of community. “I didn’t really fall in love with L.A. until I started walking and moving at a pedestrian pace,” Fleming says. “It’s hard to have a relationship with a set of freeway off-ramps and from your car going 60 miles an hour. It’s much easier to have a relationship with stairways and sidewalks, and the people you meet there as you walk.”

To join Fleming on his monthly Secret Stairs walks, find Secret Stairs on Facebook or visit http://secretstairs-la.com.

By: Patty Park '91

Hear Charles talk about the "Music Box Stairs" on one of his tours:

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