Secret Stairs in Berkeley


I consider walking and exploring great forms of therapy. I especially enjoy self-guided tours in urban areas,  so when I heard Charles Fleming talking on the radio about his book Secret Stairs East Bay (A Walking Guide to the Historic Staircases of Berkeley and Oakland), I ordered a copy. Each circular walk is calibrated by length, difficulty and duration, and also, the exact number of steps on each walk.  Fleming had previously written a book on hidden stairways in LA where many locals were less than thrilled with urban hikers in their neighborhoods. By contrast, he reports that East Bay residents seemed delighted with explorers taking an interest in their necks of the woods. This tidbit made me happy as I have just recently begun to embrace the East Bay as my home. I moved from Manhattan to San Francisco in 1999 and then to the East Bay in 2004. For most of that time I considered myself a New Yorker spending a little time on the Left Coast. Fourteen years later I am still here with no plans to re-locate, so I think I can start calling myself a Californian. Hmm. Seeing that in writing is unsettling. New York is one of the most vibrant cities in the world, and I have never stopped loving it. I suppose I can think of myself as having dual citizenship. There.  That feels better.

I just came across a photo of what appears to be a stairway to the sky in mid-town Manhattan. In fact, this “stairway” is actually private patios and gardens at a residential development called Mercedes House. Next to that photo are some steps near Holy Hill in Berkeley. Those are real and anyone can visit them.

MercedesHouse1      steps

When I lived in New York, I enjoyed many self-guided and  a few guided tours, of which there are plenty. But apart from Washington Heights and areas north of it, you won’t find a lot of stairways in Manhattan, unless you’re inside of a building. (This is part of what makes it such a great walking city). I grew up on the South Shore of Long Island – also very flat. Geologically, Long Island  is the result of  sediment deposits from melting glaciers. Most of the rocky debris formed the North Shore which is what makes it hilly, with stony  beaches. The South Shore comes from the melted “outwash plain” which resulted in all of those white sandy beaches on the Island’s South Shore. Great beaches – no hidden stairways. In the mid-90s I lived in Hong Kong for a few months. Now that’s a city of outdoor stairways! Hong Kong is so steep that several escalators are built into its rocky terrain:


The perfect excuse to crack open the East Bay guide book came with the arrival of my sister Melissa and her wife Jennifer last week. You may recall from previous blog that they were visiting from the East Coast. The delicious lunch at Vik’s Chaat Corner in Berkeley was, in fact, fortification for Walk #6 (Holy Hill): 1.5 hours, 2.6 mi, 244 steps with a difficulty level of 3.  When we finished our lunch, however, it was raining a little, so we did a little shopping while we waited for it to clear up. Then we optimistically headed to Holy Hill – a neighborhood north of UC Berkeley campus characterized by several theological institutions.


We grabbed some good strong coffee from Brewed Awakening, a spacious college study spot, and set out to explore. Jennifer seems happy to be back in her old university ‘hood, and Melissa just seems happy.

holy2 holyhill

In days gone by, Euclid Avenue was home to a streetcar line. Many of the stairways on this walk connected residents to that line. The houses in this area are gorgeous, and the book discusses several individual homes and architects. The Berkeley hills are susceptible to fires, and many homes and apartment buildings in this area were destroyed by fire in 1923. The newer buildings are in keeping with the old architecture, however.

lovelypath  hillct

This delightful walk meanders through a beautiful hillside neighborhood, and is enhanced by Fleming’s historical and architectural descriptions. In addition to the charming stairways, there are several  hidden  paths on this walk. Had it not been for the book, we might have thought we were trespassing as several steps and paths are neatly ensconced between homes. In fact, some of these homes do not face the street, and are only accessible via these steps and paths. If you think you might be wandering into someone’s yard, just look for a street sign to be on the safe side.

We were so pleased with our walk that we decided to try another the next morning. This time, however, my five-year old son was going to be with us so I had to keep this in mind when picking a walk. I ended up selecting the shortest walk in the book – Walk # 7 (Berryman Station).


This 30 minute, 0.8 mi walk with 89 steps and a difficulty rating of 1.5 basically encircles Berkeley’s Live Oak Park.  This was perfect as I didn’t have to worry about streets and cars, and my son could run around and explore on his own a little.  The Berkeley Art Center lies on the perimeter of the park and I made a note to come back and visit.  My son had fun participating on the tour by counting the steps to make certain we were in the right place. Live Oak Park boasts a creek, a few bridges and a picnic area. There is  also a graffiti-covered wall which made me pine for New York. We came upon a plaque about the  Napoleon Byrne House, an 1868 mansion that once stood at this location and was home to “Nappy” Byrne and his family. They  traveled  from Missouri by covered wagon and are said to have been Berkeley’s first African American residents. Farther along on the walk is an interesting remnant –  part of a huge stone chimney which is all that remains of a 1915 residence destroyed by fire. My son liked this out-of-place structure in the middle of the trees and tried to open the big metal doors of what appears to be a working fireplace.

dommierunning       dommieruns

Well, my out-of-town visitors are gone, but my interest in stairway walks has been piqued. There is a soul food restaurant in Oakland that friends and I have been meaning to try, but we are a little nervous about the calories. A perfect solution might by chicken and waffles followed by an Oakland walking tour. Sounds like a good plan ….


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