A few weeks ago, the great public radio show “99% Invisible” ran a piece on Charles Fleming, a Los Angeles-based writer and the author of two books about the hidden public stairways of coastal California. “99% Invisible” packs a lot into a short amount of time, and the 11 or so minutes of the broadcast are a rapturous celebration of public staircases and their role in the life of the California pedestrian.
In both Los Angeles and the Bay Area, hills are an integral part of the landscape. In the 1920s and 1930s, developers and public-works agencies created a massive, mostly hidden system of stairways, taking pedestrians from their houses and apartments up or down to streetcar lines, schools, shops, and other public places. They were, as much as streetlights, fire hydrants and electric lines, a public utility.
Fleming began walking these stairways in his Los Angeles neighborhood as a way to regain his strength after a series of surgeries. He enjoyed using them so much that he wound up documenting the hundreds he found, and publishing his findings in these books, “Secret Stairs” and “Secret Stairs: East Bay.”
“L.A. is a hard city to own,” he says. “People don’t feel an intimate connection to it … most of the city is the name of an off-ramp.” These public stairs are one way to connect with the city around you on a personal level.
“Wherever there is sufficient demand to move between two points of differing elevation,” says host Roman Mars at the beginning of the program, “there are stairs.”
This may be true, but hey, what about a city where there isn’t much in the way of differing elevation?
With a few exceptions, Minneapolis is pretty flat. That’s why it’s so easy to bike, and why the towering cumulus cloud formations in the prairie skies overhead are so magnificent, but also one of the reasons why people from more mountainous parts of the country get a little stir-crazy here.
There are a few hills around, and even a handful of neighborhoods with names that indicate some sort of modest elevation (Loring Heights, Marshall Terrace). Mostly, though, there is very little in the way of points separated by height. Only 288 feet separate the city’s highest elevation from its lowest – by comparison, San Francisco’s highest and lowest points are separated by 925 feet. Between Mount Lukens and the Los Angeles Basin in L.A., the city’s topography falls within a range of 5,074 feet.
Between this admittedly narrow spread in Minneapolis, however, there are a few public stairways worth taking a walk up or down. One of the most dramatic drop-offs in the city is the bluffs along the Mississippi River, east of downtown. The two best stairways I know of are here, on the East Bank, between Franklin Avenue and Fairview Riverside Medical Center.
The first set of stairs is near the concrete, vaguely modernist F.W. Cappelen Memorial Bridge, otherwise known as the Franklin Avenue Bridge. It’s a wooden staircase with rust red railings, just off of East River Parkway. I’m not sure when it was built — it could be anytime between the 1930s and 1980s, from the look of it — but the use of wood stairsteps suggests that the builder’s vision was to create a somewhat rustic look. It does have a certain state-park-like quality to it.
The stairs descend through the thickly wooded bluffs onto the trails that run along the Mississippi River. Unlike many of the public stairways Fleming describes, this one is built more for recreational purposes than for everyday pedestrian use, as a way to move from the bustle of the nearby University of Minnesota campus to the wilds of the Mississippi riverbank.
The river in this part of the city can seem almost subterranean, separated and buffered from the flat, gridded, concrete expanses of southeast Minneapolis above it by sheer wooded bluffs. Descending the stairways, one gets the sense of traveling underground. The path down by the river is, on a Sunday morning, almost wholly deserted, and the roar of vehicular traffic over Franklin and 94 sound like it’s coming from some distant point overheard. In earlier eras, immigrants made their homes in wooden shantytowns built on these flood-prone areas, but evidence of any part of that physical environment is long gone. Or mostly gone: You can still see, underneath the Franklin Avenue Bridge, the ruins of the base of the 19th century bridge that crossed the river at this site earlier.
Once you’ve made the descent, you can find Bridal Veil Falls, the anemic youngest sibling of the Minneapolis waterfall family. If Minnehaha Falls is where you take out-of-town visitors to revel in beer, fried fish, and surrey trips, and St. Anthony Falls is where you take your niece and nephew to learn about the history of milling and see the occasional barge go through the lock and dam, Bridal Veil Falls is the place where you take your high school boyfriend or girlfriend at night and drink 40s.
According to old photographs, Bridal Veil Falls, where Bridal Veil Creek dropped about one hundred feet into the Mississippi River near Franklin Avenue, was once a quite picturesque spot for picnickers and daytrippers. Industry and modernity swallowed it up, however, and the creek was absorbed into the city sewer system decades ago. It’s now an underground waterway that is expelled in a less-than-spectacular fashion near the rocky shores of the river. In terms of women’s clothing, the effect is less of an ethereal bridal veil, and more of run in a pair of stockings. When I visited, the falls were barely a trickle, splashing quietly over a manmade multi-tiered stone embankment. There’s an arc-shaped concrete overlook above it on East River Parkway, its underneath saturated with color by graffiti artists.
The visuals are lacking, but the sonic effect is still really quite nice. The water falls into a stony creek bed, and flows through that under a concrete basin, and then into the river. Besides the vehicular traffic from Franklin Avenue above, the area by the river is mostly quiet, except for the chirping of birds and the splashing of water. Like so many places in this city, it’d be hard to know that you’re in an urban area at all based on the surroundings.
This isn’t to suggest people besides the graffitists aren’t enjoying the falls, because they clearly are. Besides a smattering of littered bottles and cans, there is (or was?) a brilliant guerrilla swing set installation, created by a small party of unknown Minneapolitans so determined to have a good time by the falls that they nailed a 2×4 into two nearby trees, and secured two blue swings with rope, chains, and carabiners. It looks as if it could have been created anytime between the past few days and several months ago, and it’s a heartening reclamation of an underused and ragged but nonetheless very pretty public space. Nearby, another traveler (or, who knows, maybe the same one) has stacked a pile of rocks into a sort of altar on the bank of the river. The whole site has the appearance of an alternative recreational area hidden away from the rest of the city meant specifically for Zen-influenced nature lovers, aerosol artists, and renegade teenagers.
About a half-mile west, walking toward downtown, there is a second set of public stairs, cast completely in concrete and looking very much like a product of the 1960s or ’70s. Unlike the first set, which ramble in a series of zig-zag patterns down the bluff, these are very orderly, each flight perfectly spaced diagonally, and imparting a very mechanical quality. The concrete steps and metal handrails are as utilitarian as the stairs downriver are rustic, but in the early spring landscape, against the browns and grays of the not-yet-blooming trees and ground cover, it blends right in. The muted palette around it gives the impression of the stairway being much older than it probably is, as if someone plopped the stairwell from a massive Brutalist government center down onto the side of hill and let nature overtake it.
Ascending these steps from the quiet and solitude of the river trails, you’re suddenly back in the city, right on the edge of the university and surrounded by cyclists and college-aged joggers wearing earbuds and Greek T-shirts. These passersby are all zooming past you on the sidewalks, streets and trails.
These staircases are missing the romantic pedestrian quality their California counterparts derive from being so integrated into the urban fabric. They do, however, serve an equally romantic transportive quality – taking a pedestrian on a fairly rapid trip between the above-ground city and the quiet, nearly rustic riverbanks below.
Have some favorite public staircases in Minneapolis or St. Paul besides these two on the East Bank? Please let me know in the comments. A few additional favorites: the stairs to the Washburn Water Tower in Tangletown, and the WPA stairways at Minnehaha Falls.