A few weeks ago, while writing a Stroll on Minneapolis skateboarding videos, I spoke to longtime local skateboarder Tucker Gerrick, who said something that’s really stuck with me: “You want to know where to go in the city, ask a skateboarder. I can tell you which streets have manholes that smell more, or the streets where the cracks are deeper.”
Since then, I’d been thinking about how various subcultures interact with different features of the city that may seem invisible to everyone else. Skateboarders, as Tucker pointed out, know the plazas and benches and retaining walls of downtown better than anyone this side of the Minneapolis Department of Public Works. Last week, in writing about public stairways in Minneapolis, I discovered — based on comments, emails, and social media chatter — that the stairways along the East Bank bluffs and the flats below them are best-known by university students, who use them fairly regularly for both recreation and exercise.
There’s also another subculture of people in the Twin Cities who know stairs particularly well: runners. If you need to know where every public stairway in the area is located, you can just spend a little time on online runners’ forums and get a whole map’s worth of locations.
Stairs suit the runners’ subculture perfectly in terms of being publicly accessible, picturesque, free to use, and great for cardiovascular workouts. As I wrote last week, public staircases in most parts of the country were initially created by developers and public-works agencies to take pedestrians from their houses and apartments up or down hilly areas overlaid with a city grid to streetcar lines, schools, shops and other public places.
Since the advent of private automobiles, however, public staircases are probably less of a utility and more of an amenity. Today, these public stairways are used by the occasional neighborhood pedestrian for purely practical reasons, but for the most part, they seem to be used recreationally. It’s runners who are probably the most vocal and enthusiastic users, but there are whole subsets of walkers and urban hikers who also know and use them regularly.
St. Paul, being the much more topographically diverse of the two twins, is home quite a few public stairways — architectural historian Larry Millett estimates there are around 90. Most of these would qualify as “secret staircases” in only the broadest terms. Though they’re unknown to the vast majority of Twin Cities residents and hidden away behind alleys and back streets along the bluffs, runners, hikers, strollers and people in the neighborhoods use them regularly. In fact, one of these so-called “secret” stairways, the first one of four we’ll look at today, can barely be called a “secret,” since it was recently in the local news.
The Walnut Street stairway is one of the grandest and most visible public stairways in St. Paul, connecting Summit Avenue by the James J. Hill House to Irvine Avenue below, and then down over the I-94 trench to United Hospital. Hill had it built in 1901 between his house and the house of his son, Louis, next door. The land was platted as “Walnut Street,” but too steep for a conventional road. Last year, there was a disagreement between the city and the current owners of Louis’ house about who is responsible for paying for the upkeep to a brick wall that separates the stairways from their property. You can read about the dispute in this Star Tribune article from early 2012.
The wall is in somewhat rough shape, with a few chunks missing. This doesn’t distract from the fact, though, that the walk down from Summit is one of the greatest views in the city. Even on the morning I walked it, in unseasonably miserable sleeting weather, the view of the river and the bluffs and the city below receding into a snowy haze is magnificent. One side of the staircase, on the James J. Hill side, is stonework, and the wall on the Louis Hill side is red brick. Both have some very old graffiti carved into them — 1961, in one case, and another from 1923, if I am not being misled by Roman numerals.
Irvine Avenue is located halfway down the bluffs between Summit Avenue and Grand Avenue, on a steep incline that ends at the river. It’s split into two very narrow one-way streets, which are themselves separated in elevation by a few feet. Walking down Irvine, you can see a few other public staircases that have survived into the present. Behind one of the buildings owned by the soon-to-be-former College of Visual Arts, above the intersection between Ramsey Street, Grand Avenue and Pleasant Avenue, there is an agreeably ramshackle wood-and-metal staircase connecting the two Irvines, painted green and with about 20 steps. At the end of the upper Irvine Avenue, before it veers north, crosses Summit and becomes Western, there is a longer cement staircase with metal railings connecting it to Ramsey Street below.
Both of these staircases are pretty utilitarian and not much to look at, but the views are exceptional – particularly the latter, which gives you an excellent view of the High Bridge and the full sweep of the river valley below. It’s hard to see through the fresh layer of snow on the ground, but it looks as if there are the vestiges of another cement staircase nearby, from a time when these types of stairways would have been critical for navigating this neighborhood on foot.
Walking down Summit to our final stairway, turn left on Lawton. Lawton only runs three blocks, the last third of which is – like the invisible Hill-adjacent Walnut Street at our first stop – a stairway. As you approach, there’s a “DEAD END” sign where the road ends. Doesn’t apply to us, though, since we’re on foot.
This is probably the best of the four stairways, or at least the closest to the ideal of a public stairway as giving a completely fresh perspective on the city and its surroundings. This one is more utilitarian than Hill’s grand Walnut Street staircase, just white concrete and green metal railings. The best part about it is that it cuts right through a residential area, and you’re passing down through a cluster of homes built in a mish-mash of architectural styles. Traveling down feels like taking a secret shortcut through people’s backyards, despite the fact that you’re in a public space. It feels hidden away from everyday use, and to some extent, it is. There is one house marked with a Lawton Street address on the way down, but isn’t on a street at all – it’s only accessible via the stairway. It may be one of the only private residences in the Twin Cities you can’t reach by automobile.
That’s four of 90 staircases you can cross off your list. This is a topic I hope to revisit with some regularity in the future, since, well, no one else is really handling the public staircase beat locally. These stairways are, as Charles Fleming calls them in his “Secret Stairs” books on Los Angeles and the East Bay, a civic treasure. Locally, it’s one of the primary features through which St. Paul strongly distinguishes itself from Minneapolis, as a city built on hills, where neighborhoods are separated by elevation.
Until I get to the rest of them, talk to some of the runners you know living in St. Paul. They’ll probably be able to point them out to you, because runners will always know where the best public stairways are.
A big thanks to all the readers who wrote and left comments last week about their favorite stairs, with a special commendation to Elizabeth A. Snelson, who suggested some of the stairs featured today.