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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.

As my database grew, nothing tweaked me more than encountering closed stairs–public thoroughfares that were chained off. I found three shackled flights and spent considerable time finding out why. Two had been earthquake-damaged; another had been shut years before because it had been used as a drug hangout. That I couldn’t somehow include these stairs haunted me–but every time I pressed city officials to let me walk them, I was met with indifference.

After a few months, I’d fine-tuned my stair-finding technique: At the top of every staircase or hill, I’d do a methodical, 360-degree scan of the horizon, often seeing tiny hints of flights poking out amid trees or alongside houses. My Echo Park list grew beyond 30 stairways, but I was missing something: an elegant way to connect the two neighborhoods. A major avenue–Alvarado Street, part of the old Route 66–cut between Silverlake and Echo Park. It was eight lanes of rush-hour madness. I’d found one overpass, but it meant walking a mile without a staircase.

On a Saturday morning, I was walking up Baxter Street, a road I’d begun to see as the backbone of the two neighborhoods. It stretched, with frequent interruptions for staircases, from Silverlake all the way through Echo Park, finally ending in the highest, longest stair climb in either neighborhood, a twisting 260 steps, and ending with an astonishing overlook toward East Los Angeles, with train yards and freeways and checkerboard communities and millions and millions of cars. When I reached the top of that staircase, I turned around and off in the distance, I saw it. There, nosing out from dense foliage, was a series of stairs. I traced it with my eyes, down the hill–it descended right toward Silverlake and almost reached Alvarado Street.
On my notepad, I wrote: “THE MOTHER STAIRS.”

They were even better than that.

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