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June 2004

I Climbed Los Angeles

One small step for our stair-obsessed man, one giant leap for fitness freaks everywhere.

A journey of 5,000 steps, it turns out, begins with a single staircase. I’d noticed that flight years before, jutting 218 steps up from Sunset Boulevard, two blocks from my house near downtown Los Angeles. It first drew my attention more as a cultural artifact than the beginning of an exploration–never mind an obsession. In 1932, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy won an Academy Award for a film called The Music Box, whose primary scene took place on the steps (you remember it; they’re trying to haul a piano, and it keeps sliding down). But last year, as I was lacing my boots, racing against the setting sun for a walk in the Angeles National Forest, 20 miles north–I was training for an autumn climb of Mt. Whitney–the historic incline suddenly suggested a more immediate use: I knew of at least four or five other long staircases in my hilly community. There were probably more I wasn’t aware of. “All these steps,” I thought, “could add up to a mountain.”

Geography is on your side if you want to become a Los Angeles stair climber. My neighborhood, Silverlake, and the adjacent one, Echo Park–we’re just a little bit west of downtown and Dodger Stadium–are conglomerations of terraced houses and winding streets along a series of rolling hillsides. None are higher than 800 feet, but most are steep: The five most sharply inclined streets in the city separate the two communities, built on famously shaky terrain thrust upward by an ancient fault line that passes directly underneath the schools, houses, and shops. These are some of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, as well; the stairways are artifacts of a century-old transportation system that relied almost exclusively on foot, horse, or trolley traffic. At one point, there were dozens and dozens of these ascending sidewalks. “Real estate developers built the stairs,” says Jesus Sanchez, who leads tours of the area for a local historical society, “because they needed a way for people to get to the houses being sold above.”

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