.Secret Staircases to the Past

Originally built to help Key System commuters avoid trekking up and down narrow winding streets, the East Bay's numerous hidden staircases are experiencing renewed popularity.

In your travels through the East Bay, you may have noticed age-worn cement staircases peeking out from between homes and carving shortcuts through our region’s many hilly neighborhoods. Some of these staircases date back more than a century.

In the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and the catastrophic fires that followed, many residents fled the ravaged city, settling across the bay in Oakland and Berkeley. Before the quake, these East Bay burgs boasted populations of just 67,000 and 26,000, respectively —numbers that quickly swelled by tens of thousands following the exodus from San Francisco.

With the influx of new inhabitants in need of housing, as well as the emerging trend of “streetcar suburbs” on the outskirts of cities, Oakland and Berkeley started expanding from the flatlands into the hills, further away from the city centers. While most of these then-new neighborhoods had stops on the Key System — the precursor to AC Transit — many homes perched in the hills’ higher elevations lacked easy access to the streetcars. So that commuters could avoid trekking up and down the narrow winding streets, real estate developers built hundreds of staircases as shortcuts through early hills neighborhoods, such as Berkeley’s Northbrae and Oakland’s Crocker Highlands and Upper Rockridge. “Urban planners knew they were making neighborhoods for middle class families that … would need access to public buses and trolleys,” explained Charles Fleming, author of the book, Secret Stairs: East Bay (Santa Monica Press), in an interview.

In the decades that followed, cars became the preferred mode of travel, and, as a result, housing extended even higher into the hills and further from mass transit stops. The Key System, and the stairs that led to it, were used less and less. Some staircases fell into dangerous disrepair and were cordoned off due to public safety concerns.

Ranging from a few overgrown steps of rotting wood to long flights of elegantly aged cement, these “secret” stairs remained largely forgotten until the devastating 1991 Oakland hills fire, when many hills dwellers used the staircases to escape their burning homes. “People who would never have made it out on the roadway, which was crowded with cars trying to get out of the burn area and emergency vehicles trying to get in, may have had their lives saved because they escaped down the stairs,” Fleming noted.

Lately, the hundreds of remaining staircases in the East Bay have experienced renewed popularity as more and more locals are discovering that these stairs are a fantastic way to explore their neighborhoods, or simply to get some exercise. In addition to the publication of Secret Stairs: East Bay in 2011, organizations such as the Berkeley Path Wanderers Association (BerkeleyPaths.org) and Oakland Urban Paths (OaklandUrbanPaths.org) regularly lead walks that showcase historic staircases. What makes these once-forgotten escaliers worth checking out? “The stairs are a sort of secret network of back-street, back-alley pathways through some of the area’s most interesting neighborhoods,” Fleming said. “They make for an excellent set of hiking trails, right close to home.” The payoff, Fleming added, is spectacular views of the urban skyline and the bay once you reach the stairs’ apex.

In the last decade, the City of Oakland and volunteer members of the Berkeley Path Wanderers Association have worked to restore several staircases in their respective cities, particularly those that had been neglected to the point of being dangerous. This kind of restoration is important, according to Fleming, because “the stairs are part of the city’s heritage, and are a historical peculiarity worth preserving. They may also be essential in getting people out of their cars and back onto public transport, which is good for the health of the citizens and the health of the community.” By providing residents with easier access to shops and restaurants, staircases make many neighborhoods more pedestrian-friendly and further engage residents in their community — something that Oakland and Berkeley governments should continue to keep in mind when considering future projects.

Detailed descriptions of and directions to the staircases can be found in Secret Stairs: East Bay; maps of the stairs can also be found at OaklandUrbanPaths.org and BerkeleyPaths.org.


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