Cleveland Cascade near Lake Merritt is possibly the best known of the "secret" staircases in Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz

Last year, Jeremy Lizt and Debbie Breisblatt started taking walks up and down the many sets of narrow stairways in alleys between houses in parts of Oakland and Berkeley, weaving around the heavy foliage that drapes many of these serene spaces. The Oakland residents, who met early in 2020 and moved in together after the coronavirus lockdown, took to the stairs to exercise safely while learning more about the region they call home, drawing inspiration from Charles Fleming’s 2011 book Secret Stairs East Bay: A Walking Guide to the Historic Staircases of Berkeley and Oakland. They consulted Fleming chapter-by-chapter to locate the sometimes hidden staircases, marking the date of each journey in their copy of the book.

“We made good progress since there was nothing else to do. There’s a lot here in March, April, May, and June,” Breisblatt said while flipping through her heavily marked-up copy. “We had a few stragglers in July and August, and had one last set we were going to do, and then it rained. After we came back from a road-trip, we finished it on November 29th.”

But it turns out they weren’t done. A few months later, in late February, Lizt suggested they revisit the first staircase they’d walked together. 

That walk, number 33 in Fleming’s book, is one of the shortest, at a little over a mile, with fewer than 700 total steps. But its stairs are among the steepest, climbing past backyard gardens along Thornhill Drive into Oakland’s Merriwood neighborhood in Montclair. The top offers a high-peak Bay vista and, depending on the time of day, a candied sunset view.

At the midpoint of the walk, Lizt went off-script. He told Debbie he’d done some research and discovered something.  

“You’re never going to believe this, but I looked at the book earlier, and there’s one more staircase we didn’t get to,” Lizt said. 

“That’s impossible! I recorded all of them,” Breisblatt replied. 

Lizt was insistent: “There’s one we missed.”

He took out a new copy of the book that he’d bought, unbeknownst to Breisblatt. He handed it to her. Breisblatt read the summary of this unfinished staircase and realized it had been modified with a massive twist. 

It read:

                 DURATION: 2 lifetimes
                             DISTANCE: all the way
                                             STEPS: innumerable
                                                            DIFFICULTY: 5.0 

“This is the most challenging—and rewarding—walk in the collection,” Lizt had written, mimicking Fleming’s style. “There are ups and downs, strenuous stretches, a few dull patches here and there, and in many spots the path isn’t especially clear. But persevere and you will find unparalleled vistas, enchanted forests, international adventure, and countless opportunities for humor, joy, and love.”

Jeremy had cut out some space at the bottom of the page. Behind the flap was the ring. 

“I just could not read anymore,” said Breisblatt. “So he reads me this beautiful passage, and at the end of it, he’s like, ‘Will you go on this walk with me?’”

After she said “yes,” they roamed the neighborhood, drunk with happiness. Along the way, Lizt pointed to a signpost indicating an intersection with Merriewood Drive. He couldn’t help it. “Would you like to Merriewood me?” he put to Breisblatt.

“Sher-wood!” she said, noting the cross street: Sherwood Road.

In the weeks since their engagement, the couple got in touch with Fleming through a friend, and the former Los Angeles Times journalist sent them a signed copy of his book. Now they have three books they can’t lend to anyone because they’re so important: the annotated copy, their altered engagement version, and the signed one. 

“We felt as though Charles was almost there in person, chaperoning us,” said Lizt. “We would jocularly talk to Charles, appreciate his descriptions, and chide the observations that didn’t quite match our experience. Perhaps in this way, by relating to Charles, we found a way to relate to each other.”

Jeremy Lizt and Debbie Breisblatt wandering up a stairway in Oakland’s Merriewood neighborhood. Credit: Amir Aziz

Winding history

While not every walk described in Fleming’s “Secret Stairs” leads to lifelong companionship, it’s been a mainstay on Bay Area bookshelves since it was first published a decade ago. According to employees at Berkeley’s Half-Price Books and Oakland’s Pegasus Books, it’s among the most popular titles. 

Fleming said “tens of thousands” have been sold, and that it’s common for locals to buy copies in bulk to gift to new homeowners or college students moving to the area. 

Each of the book’s 38 walks, which include parts of Kensington, Albany, Piedmont, and El Cerrito, is accompanied by hand-drawn maps guiding people to hillside loops that last between one to two hours.

Oakland and Berkeley have both tried sprucing up their staircases over the years. Oakland’s Citywide Pedestrian Stair and Paths Program repaired about 40 of the city’s 220 staircases between 2001 and 2017 using a chunk of the state’s annual $400,000 allocation from the Transportation Development Act. In Berkeley, the over 600-member volunteer group Berkeley Path Wanderers Association heroically maintains many of the stairs. They also are on the lookout for forgotten paths that can be cleared of obstructions and reopened. 

The stairs haven’t always been so loved, especially in Oakland. 

For years, many were in disrepair, and only until the 1991 fire, when they were used by fleeing residents from the Hiller Highlands and Claremont Hills to escape, did many people remember their importance. Fleming wrote that “Diablo fires blew the wind across the hillsides. The non-native eucalyptus trees went up like Roman candles.” Firefighters asked the city to make the stairs part of its emergency evacuation network. If you climb to the top of Erba Path, next to Redwood Terrace, you’ll find a plaque commemorating those who rebuilt the neighborhood after their homes burned. 

So how did the stairs come about in the first place? 

As Fleming and others point out, they were created for East Bay hills residents who moved into new developments after the 1906 earthquake destroyed much of San Francisco. The stairways made it easier and faster for these hills residents to walk from their homes to pick-up points for Key Line trains, the electric streetcar service that connected the region at the time. Since most who lived in those neighborhoods were middle-class and did not own cars, real estate developers like Schnoor & Son made sure they had walking access to the streetcars to get to work. Some routes ended at ferries that shuttled commuters across the Bay to San Francisco.

Berkeley and Oakland were two of the fastest-growing cities in the country, and developers were keen on making these new hills neighborhoods as attractive as possible. The stairways were part of the pitch. Eventually, cars took over, and the Key Line went unused. By the late 1950s, a new train and bus service was developing; its commuting footprints would lead to AC Transit and BART.

Following Fleming’s book, you learn how East Bay streets developed and why they follow the routes they do. For example, wide avenues like Broadway in Oakland and Sutter in Berkeley were initially built for trains to fit in on tracks running in the middle of the road. Fleming also preserves the history of one of the most overlooked events in local history, the 1923 Berkeley fire that destroyed nearly 600 homes. After reading the chapter about this disaster, I spent the next few days obsessively researching it, watching old videos, and craning my neck around the neighborhood to figure out which homes survived. 

How to launch a million walks

Cleveland Cascade near Lake Merritt is possibly the best known of the “secret” staircases in Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz

Charles Fleming started walking in earnest as a way to recover from serious spinal injuries caused by rough living, including a series of construction jobs. Around 2008, his wife took him to a Los Angeles neighborhood that was good for walking and they found several footpaths he could explore. Eventually, he walked all over the city, his back healed, and, because he was a newspaper reporter, he pitched a column to Los Angeles Times editors called “L.A. Walks.” In writing the series, he learned more about the city than ever, though he’d lived in Los Angeles since the 60s. 

“I’ve never felt especially like an Angeleno, but walking the stairs and spending so much time in the city as a pedestrian really kind of turns my head around,” he said.

The columns were popular and led to his first walking book about Los Angeles. His daughter Katie started college at U.C. Berkeley around that time, and he started spending more time in the Bay Area. He wasn’t planning on doing a book here, though publishers suggested he write about San Francisco’s stairways. Fleming figured Adah Bakalinsky’s book already did that city’s stairs justice and “didn’t want to take on her turf.” At the time, he said, no one had written a whole book encompassing the nearly 300 sets of stairs in the East Bay. 

Fleming started meeting with local walking groups like the Berkeley Path Wanderers, who gave him trail maps, many of which had been written and edited over the years by volunteers. For Fleming, writing the staircase books became more about researching the area’s history and finding out the best way to connect different sets of stairways through exciting narratives. 

Fleming said that even though it might not take longer than two hours to traverse any particular walk, the research process takes time.

“I might have to go back to that neighborhood two and three and four times because I didn’t know where the staircases were,” he said. “So I would pick an area that was hilly and a neighborhood that was developed before the Second World War.” 

Sometimes, he took tips from people he met in the neighborhood that knew their history well. “Most of it is very pleasurable because I was walking all the time or doing research on something that fascinated me.”

His publisher recently updated all three of his walking books, including a sequel to his L.A. stairs book. They were all rewalked by Fleming or with help from readers and researchers. For the East Bay book, 15 volunteers walked most of the trails, including his daughter, who now lives and works in Berkeley. 

“She did the bulk of the work for this one,” he said. 

Katie Fleming, who is the education coordinator at UC Berkeley’s Anthropology Museum, said she and her partner had taken notes on walks in her dad’s book for years, but focused in 2020 on parts that were especially affected during the quarantine—the eateries that start and end most walks. “My dad likes to start and end at a place where you can grab a coffee or a slice of pizza. The pub walk books of England were [part of the inspiration] for his first book.” 

Katie said she enjoyed stepping into her dad’s shoes and feeling proud about his engagement with the East Bay from “a place of curiosity and good intentions.” Her family never expected the book’s warm and grateful local reception over the past decade. 

“They’ve been a way for someone to connect with their city, to connect with their families, and loved ones,” she said. “To remember that they live in a real physical world and that the evidence of that history is literally inscribed in our landscape.”

Healthy places

Many of Oakland’s stairways run between backyards with lush gardens and are draped in foliage. Credit: Amir Aziz

Lawrence Diller, a longtime Oakland resident and UCSF professor who is an expert in ADD/ADHD treatment, also used the book to record his travels along the stairways during quarantine. 

“There’s a sort of whimsy and focus that Charles puts into his book,” Diller said. He walked 28 of the stairways with his wife and friends during the pandemic, months after receiving a knee replacement. He found out about the book from his son, who walked the Los Angeles version, and told him it made him feel more connected to his community. 

Diller gave the book to one of his young patients, a teen without a driver’s license who isn’t very social, to see if it could do the same for him. He was delighted to see the young man not only accept the gift but begin taking public transportation to explore new neighborhoods by himself. “Following a guide, following a plan,” he said, gave the young man some structure and a reason to step away from screens. 

Oaklandish co-founder Jeff Hull, whose immersive art project, “The Jejune Institute,” reached big audiences last year with a TV adaptation, remembers the stairs of his youth with fondness and a different type of stimulation: He got his first-ever peek at a Playboy someone had stashed along the stair path between Carlston and Paramount in the Crocker Highlands. It’s also “probably” where he first tried weed.

“Some trails off the stairs led to areas you could just get lost in,” Hull recalled.

Hull even created his own walking guide, years before Fleming, for his underground zine Oakslander. That work, which he calls a “love letter” to the city, was an indie precursor to the urban culture appreciation ethos of his early Oaklandish poster campaigns and shows. 

“I’m not going to place value-judgment on the old-timers or the newcomers, but I will say that when suddenly everything is more expensive and therefore more exclusive, there’s just a different vibe,” said Hull. “People are much more concerned about security and the perception of crime. More of a security state. More fences. More security cameras. So all of that inhibits the sense of exploration or transgression.”

Pushing through

Running near Cleveland Cascade. Credit: Amir Aziz

Like Diller, Lizt, and Breisblatt, I also sought to climb every secret stairway during the quarantine. 

I always started my journeys with the broken-in book firmly in hand and ended with a streak of sweat around the crown of my hat. The experience was a reminder of my good fortune: I get to live in beautiful Oakland, with its mild weather, and I can easily roam in uncrowded spaces. New Yorkers living in glass high-rises can’t say that. 

Still, I was afraid of being on the receiving end of germs from unmasked runners or bikers. Even after being notified by my girlfriend, a public health expert, that the virus was most likely not transferred through the miasma theory of disease, I was still wary. In the end, I masked up, got my walking boots on, and pushed myself to enjoy every walk Fleming recommended. Even if the stairs aren’t really secret anymore, one can always find a quiet spot to oneself. 

In the fall, we watched the sunset from El Cerrito’s hillside golf course, strolled through the Rose Walk houses formerly owned by the University of California, and stumbled Humpty Dumpty-style down a narrow path near Park Boulevard onto Trestle Glen (that one was just me). Living with so much sameness during quarantine, the stairways helped us find adventure in our own backyard. 

They also offered outlets for grief. Three months ago, my great-uncle, Frank Macias, passed away. Just this week, his brother Larry passed as well, likely from COVID-19 complications. Both were WWII veterans who lived in El Paso, Texas in the 1930s, and later in Oakland, and experienced virulent racism in both places. During every stair walk I’ve taken since Larry passed, I’ve thought about their sacrifices, their immense legacy, and how losing them mid-pandemic meant their sister, my 97-year old grandmother, couldn’t say goodbye in person. 

Walking these pathways amid 2020’s racial upheaval brought home for me the fact that, when my uncles Frank and Larry—excuse me, Francisco and Lorenzo— returned from the war and lived in Oakland, they were not welcome in these beautiful hills, and neither were their Black and Asian friends. 

The increasingly impossible housing market in the Berkeley and Oakland hills today, where a simple 2-bedroom bungalow can easily fetch $1.5 million and gigantic multi-million-dollar homes are under construction, underscores how some things have not changed. I can count on my two hands the number of Black or brown people I saw walking these stairs in the last year. A friend who’s a parent of Black children told me she would not recommend using the trails to people like us—neighbors are likely to call the cops, she warned. The Berkeley Path Wanderers’ Association does not have a single Black or Latinx person on their board of directors.

I remain optimistic, and I intend to keep walking stairways near and far. From now on, stair walks will be a big part of my travels. Major cities like Rome have their own stairway books to follow, but so do smaller cities like Pittsburgh, Portland, and even Bisbee, Arizona. And some are trying to make our East Bay paths more accessible to different communities. Oakland Urban Paths’ Gene Anderson, who has led tours sponsored by the city, says kids from all socioeconomic communities have gotten to walk the stairs through such efforts and will again after the pandemic. 

Despite the real sense of paranoia I sometimes felt strolling these neighborhoods, trying not to notice the many cameras noticing me, I can’t recommend these walks enough, especially with Fleming’s direction, to anyone of any age. You might encounter a frown or two, but by far, most stairway neighbors are friendly and helpful and want you to share the views they get to enjoy every day. 

Fleming offers a simple description for a walk in the Upper Piedmont area that’s become my favorite. Number 29 in the book, it starts in one of the area’s most beautifully preserved parks, abutted by Magnolia and Highland streets, and includes an awesome Japanese tea house garden as well the remnants of the long-gone, Wild West-era Spring Hotel. Later, you pass through huge sycamore-lined streets that are as beautiful as they are intimidating. For me, his description of the path functions as a sort of metaphor for anyone afraid to take on a project during times of trouble and deep division while still focusing, calmly, on your own path.  

“Pacific rises, flattens, and begins to fall sharply down and to the left,” he writes. “You, however, continue to rise, onto the big staircase straight ahead.”

Correction: the Berkeley fire was in 1923, not 1924.

Jose Fermoso covers road safety, transportation, and public health for The Oaklandside. His previous work covering tech and culture has appeared in publications including The Guardian, The New York Times, and One Zero. Jose was born and raised in Oakland and is the host and creator of the El Progreso podcast, a new show featuring in-depth narrative stories and interviews about and from the perspective of the Latinx community.