OakDOT is planning to add staircases to the Eastmont Hills neighborhood. Some neighbors are opposed, while others support the idea. Credit: Amir Aziz

Oakland’s old neighborhood staircases, created nearly 100 years ago to make it easier for residents to connect with public transit and roads, are cherished by residents in the hilly parts of the city where they’re mostly found. From Upper Rockridge to Crocker Highlands to Trestle Glen, these “secret staircases” offer walkers a hearty workout and breathtaking views.

Unbeknownst to many, there are also paths in parts of the East Oakland hills and foothills. Over the years, many have fallen into disrepair or gotten blocked off by homes, weeds, and overgrowth. Now, the city of Oakland is planning to restore several sets of paths in Millsmont and the Eastmont Hills or create new stairways on them. 

But not all of the area’s residents welcome the plan. In a survey conducted by the city last November, and during in-person community outreach events in February, some said they don’t want the new walkways. Greater accessibility, some worry, could bring unwanted foot traffic and more crime.

That said, several residents we spoke to were in favor of the project, hoping it would help neighbors get to know each other, make it easier for kids to get to school, and more.

Still, the pushback has forced the Oakland Department of Transportation to press pause. In a statement sent to The Oaklandside, OakDOT said it plans to conduct another survey and study the project more thoroughly in an effort to “build more trust within the community.” 

Less than 10 residents replied to OakDOT’s initial community survey, which was sent through the mail and required people to scan a QR code on their phones.

Fears and doubts

Current easements in the Eastmont Hills are overgrown with brush, with the last maintenance work on them happening about five years ago. Credit: Amir Aziz

OakDOT’s work was set to begin with the building of at least one staircase on a path connecting Outlook Avenue to Hillmont Drive. The department then planned to build at least four similar staircases in a currently grassy area. The five stairways, up to 270 feet long and 20 feet wide in some places, would form a network connecting MacArthur Boulevard to the edge of I-580.  

Staircases in other Oakland neighborhoods, many restored by the city and volunteers in years past, have been used by residents during the pandemic to get much-needed exercise while social distancing and to explore parts of their neighborhoods they didn’t know existed. One couple even got engaged on a favorite staircase in the Merriewood neighborhood a year ago, after spending months climbing all the stairs featured in a travel book. 

Restoration of the pathways in the East Oakland hills and elsewhere was approved and budgeted by the city in 2018 using money available through the state’s Transportation Development Act, which requires approval from Oakland’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee and City Council. 

In the last 25 years, Oakland has received $9 million from the state for stair and pathway repairs, mostly in North Oakland. The total price for building all five planned staircases in East Oakland would likely be half a million dollars. The city told The Oaklandside that work on the five staircases would happen all at once.

Some city planners told residents the stairs would allow people living in the hills to shop in the lower Macarthur Avenue area, especially from 73rd to 90th Avenue. 

But many hills residents don’t feel that the MacArthur Boulevard district offers meaningful shopping options—only the Fatboy Meat Market & Deli qualifies as a general shopping store on that part of the street. Instead, they told city staff, they drive elsewhere to shop and buy groceries.

Some residents feel worn down by burglaries and shootings

Neighbors Anthony Bruce (left) and Gerald Smith (right) point to the proposed site of the stairway located between their two homes. Credit: Amir Aziz

Gerald Smith, a 74-year old Vietnam War veteran who lives on Outlook Avenue, next to one of the planned staircases, worries the new stairs will make it easier to enter the neighborhood, where he said property crimes like home burglaries and auto thefts are already a problem. 

“My neighbor and I are both opposed to possible consistent pedestrian traffic,” Smith wrote on the survey. “We have both lived next to the path for more than 20 years.”

When reached at home, Smith told The Oaklandside that recent gun violence two blocks away made him less likely to support the project. Shootings at a nearby intersection in front of Parker Elementary School, which police have attributed to gang-related violence, have led to stray bullets piercing residents’ vehicles and living rooms windows. 

Fellow neighbor Marika McGraw is also worried about the walkways leading to more violence. She said the neighborhood’s unusually long blocks, especially between Outlook Avenue and Michigan Avenue, keep the area somewhat isolated.  

“I would definitely not use [the stairs],” McGraw told The Oaklandside. “I am sorry, I’ve lived here long enough to see the grim reality.”

Joelle Crepsac, a marriage therapist, said her home and several neighbors’ houses have been burglarized. Crepsac, however, believes people would eventually come to appreciate the stairs if they improved pedestrian access, and could increase property values. 

“Understanding how crime-prevention methods are being included [in the proposal] is important to me,” she said. 

Currently, most city-owned easements in the area are overgrown with weeds, fenced off, and impassable. Resident Gerald Smith believes that if the city would do more to keep the grass short, more people would use them as paths and there wouldn’t be a need to build anything new. Some of these paths, including Cumberland Way at Outlook Avenue, are already part of walking maps, including on Google Maps and the official Walk Oakland! map

Local walking organizations like Oakland Urban Paths have not officially come out in favor of the Eastmont Hills paths. Similar organizations in the East Bay, such as the Berkeley Path Wanderers Association, tend to support stair projects and have a large base of financial and social support. The Berkeley-based group aggressively surveys city maps and legal boundaries to find spaces between homes in order to install paths and stairs.  

Other residents support the new stairs

Eastmont Hills resident Midori Tabata near a site of an unkept path. Credit: Amir Aziz

Alex Minas, a local video editor, said he generally approves city development projects, including the stairs, because they facilitate people talking to each other. Just recently, he was part of a planting project in the neighborhood that helped him meet new people. 

“A lot of people in the community tend to be very closed off and tend to stick indoors or around their property, and they don’t talk to other people because they’re scared for their safety in general,” he said. 

Loren Kollar, a Kaiser nurse who lives near the freeway, said more maintenance is needed around Eastmont, particularly in and around King Estate Open Space Park, where she has found used condoms and needles. She fears maintenance could become an issue with this project as well. 

Kollar is also worried about more people outside of the neighborhood coming into it. Still, she supports any project that seeks to connect neighbors out of “neighborly love.” 

Kaye Letitia, who lives on Ney Avenue, says she thinks the staircases could be a good thing for the many kids that live in the neighborhood and attend Parker Elementary on Ney. “The staircase could be a way for kids to walk easily to school,” she said. 

And Midori Tabata, a former member of the BPAC and an Eastmont Hills resident, said she still supports it, despite some opposition. She says that when she has used existing trails in the neighborhood, like from Sunkist Drive to Hillmont Drive, after they are cleaned up, she’s realized how much faster she can get around. 

“I went down that trail one time and…said, ‘Oh my God, it’s a lot faster way to get to the hill than to go all the way around at the end of the Sunkist,’” she said. “I think stairs would be more appealing to a lot more people walking the neighborhood.”

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.