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Thursday, November 6, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Seattle stairways: Taking steps to learn more about the city

special to The Seattle Times

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Sensible walking shoes or boots are recommend to tackle these stairs. Use a good map that clearly shows street connections — not all do — and consider making the stairs part of a longer urban stroll. Since stairs often take you closer to homes than roads typically do, be respectful of residents' privacy.

Howe Street stairs: Turn off 10th Avenue East on Capitol Hill and park on Howe Street or ascend from Lakeview Boulevard, where there is more parking. The stairs are just east of where Lakeview crosses under Interstate 5, near Exit 168A.

Garfield Street stairs: Best to head north on Taylor Avenue North on Lower Queen Anne. Look for the stairs on the left a couple of blocks north of Comstock.

Columbia Street stairs: Park near the old bathhouse, now housing a dance studio, on Lake Washington Boulevard, about a half-mile south of the trolley bus turnaround at the end of Madrona Drive. Cross the boulevard opposite the bathhouse and proceed uphill on the wooden stairs. Walk uphill until you reach 38th Avenue East, then walk south (left) one block to Columbia Street. Head uphill — the stairs are straight ahead. There are lots of options in this area to do a loop walk.

Perkins Lane: Only sure-footed walkers should attempt these twisted stairs. Park at the top of the bluff on Magnolia Boulevard West near Montavista at the parking area provided. You'll see remnants of the madrona woods that once lined this area. The stairs begin at the north end of the parking area; follow the cyclone fence to find the stairhead. To avoid the ascent, you can walk along Perkins Lane to the right and ogle the expensive properties, then ascend at West Raye Street, which joins Magnolia Boulevard north of the parking area.

If you've ever traveled over over some of Seattle's famous hilly neighborhoods — Queen Anne Hill, Capitol Hill, Beacon Hill, Mount Baker — you've likely seen the urban stairs that lead off into the steep void. Back when cities were built to serve pedestrians and horses, stairways were the preferred method of allowing humans to get quickly around communities built on hills. That partly explains the appeal to American tourists of Italian hilltop towns, which are laced with passages, stairs and narrow alleys: They are the very antithesis of modern, car-centered urban planning.

Seattle's existence as an urban center is of more recent vintage than, say, Florence, Mexico City or even Boston, but nonetheless it can make a modest claim to recognition for its range of urban stairways that creep up and down city neighborhoods.

You simply can't build a major city on a series of hills, such as Seattle occupies, and not have a legacy of stairways, even allowing for the fact that the city's founders sought to rinse the city's topography away with high-pressure hoses. Historical note: The Denny Regrade is so called because the hill named for one of the city's founders, Arthur Denny, was blasted away in a fit of Victorian conquest over nature.

Nature vs. stairways

Natural forces such as rain, subsidence and earthquakes are now the biggest worry for the future survival of many urban stairways in Seattle.

For a good example of nature's handiwork, park at the pull-out on Magnolia Boulevard and stroll down the crooked stairs to Perkins Lane, where a series of mudslides in 1997 led to the evacuation of 40 homes.

As geologists would attest, some slopes are more stable than others, some stairs in better shape than others.

Across town, clad in black Lycra tights and equipped with a CD player, headphones and a bottle of water, a runner was getting ready for her regular encounter with one of Seattle's longest sets of stairs. "It depends, but I try to do them at least four times," she said. "These are the stairs with the steepest incline with a steady, even stair."

Melissa, who didn't want to provide her last name, said she walks or runs the Howe Street stairs — all 272 of them — between 10th Avenue East and Lakeview Boulevard several times a week. "Even when it's dark, there are lights here, and people."

The Howe Street stairs are in good condition — wider than most stairs in Seattle, clean and level. You can combine the Howe Street stairs into an urban-walking loop that could include Eastlake, Lake Union or portions of Capitol Hill.

There's a satisfying view of Lake Union and Queen Anne from several points, excuse enough for a rest on an ascent.

I was curious about what the view looked like from the other direction, so with more turns and twists than a baker's dozen of pretzels, I made my way to Taylor Avenue and a stairway that represents an extension of Garfield Street. There are plenty of other stairways to choose from on Queen Anne's four flanks. To get an eyeful of the Space Needle, choose stairs on the south side.

Now while it's true that you can enjoy similar views from many roadways in Seattle, there is something significantly more intimate about gawking at the world through the narrow corridor of a public staircase.

To me, it gives a better sense of what it might be like to stare out of the world from a picture window in a tony neighborhood. This represents free entertainment, and the kind of public access you can't get in, say, Bellevue or Medina without the Neighborhood Watch Committee calling 911.

Countless possibilities

In addition to affording a glimpse into neighborhoods, urban stairs make for more interesting walks.

Madrona resident Katie Belisle explained the range of loops possible by incorporating the stairs and footpaths on the hillside above Lake Washington. Her enthusiastic black lab, Ruby, was leading Belisle and her 6-month-old daughter, Mary, up the Columbia Street stairs between 37th and 36th Avenues South. These are wooden stairs cut into the Madrona hillside.

"There are so many possibilities here," said Belisle. "Today we went down through the woods to the lake. There's a place down there where she (the dog) can go into the lake and wade. Then we came back up at Spring Street."

Although it doesn't rival Madrona for views, a steep street on Phinney Ridge does offer a unique bit of Seattle folklore — Northwest 60th Street between Second and Third Avenues Northwest. One of the steepest sections of street in the city, it was never paved. At one time, it was a late-night venue for drunks to test the prowess of their off-road driving skills.

"One four-wheel-drive truck got stuck, and a beer barrel rolled off the back, down the hill and a car on Third Avenue hit it," recalled resident Bob Martin. "We'd already called the police, and they said they couldn't come."

When Martin went out to speak to the truck owner, its driver pointed a hunting rifle at his chest. "He backed me up on to the porch."

These days the Phinney P-Patch occupies the street space. "It really brought our neighborhood together," said Martin. You can view the gardens as you climb the cleated street, which technically isn't a stairway, but it's worth a stroll to visit anyway.

Free-lance writer Gordon Black, a Bainbridge Island resident, has a new respect for the builders of Seattle's urban stairways.

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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