Many of the staircases gave way to a newer, more modern city, and those that are left are considered quaint antiquities. My realization that these steps could actually help my training–I could walk at night or during lunch hour, and I wouldn’t be polluting by driving to the woods–was tempered by an awareness that nobody really knew where most of the stairs were. A few were listed in walking guides, but there was no master tally of staircases in my part (or any part) of Los Angeles. I opened up my Thomas Guide, a 500-page, grid-by-grid deconstruction of America’s most sprawling city. My neighborhood fit neatly onto one page; Echo Park tucked into the next. I grabbed a highlighter and made a small mark on the Music Box Steps. And I began to wonder: How many more staircases could be hidden in these 25 square miles of asphalt and hillside?
At that point, I had no idea that I’d spend the next year, 3 or 4 days a week, searching for stairs. I had no idea that finding one flight of steps would always make me hungry to find another, or that this little project would very soon mutate into an oddly epic quest. But I did have the notion that led to the rest: I was going to find every staircase. I was going to climb each one.
There are big staircases–and big staircase aficionados–all over the world. In San Francisco, where the terrain is even more vertiginous than Los Angeles, walkers have made a formal sport of traipsing the city’s various ascending pathways (there are hundreds, spread over 42 distinct hills). Some cities have famous single staircases, long enough for serious climbing: Toronto’s CN Tower boasts the world’s longest indoor stairs, stretching 112 stories over 1,776 steps (average climb time is 30 minutes, but the record is 7 minutes, 52 seconds, set in 1989 by Brendan Keenoy). One of the most grueling outdoor staircase sets in the country rises from the foot of Niagara Falls to the top of that gorge; New York Governor George Pataki recently announced a program to refurbish the steps, in part because of their recreational value. In flatter cities, staircases are often the end point for runners and walkers–Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky Stairs,” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, are now part of the city’s standard walking itinerary; slightly less popular are the 75 steps off M Street in Washington, DC, that were featured in The Exorcist. Georgetown University’s varsity athletes consider the five-story ascent an essential test of fitness. One of the world’s most famous staircases, twisting inside New York’s Statue of Liberty, has been closed for security concerns, though officials recently announced that at least part of the structure’s internal ascent would be reopened this year.
The stairs of Los Angeles, by comparison, are relative unknowns. Even people living within a few hundred feet of staircases five times higher than the Georgetown steps often don’t know they exist. My strategy for finding these often concealed stairs, then, was fairly simple: start with the Music Box Steps, and spread out, exploring the neighborhood and adding more staircases. At first, all I really wanted was something I could do in an hour or so that would make me feel like I’d actually climbed a bit.