Staircases saved Charles Fleming’s back.
In 2006, as he faced his third invasive spinal surgery, Fleming decided to walk. A longtime Los Angeles resident with a slew of best-selling books to his name, Fleming had his wife drive him down from their hilltop home in the Silver Lake district to the flats. He got out and took a few steps, which led to a few more, which led him to start walking up and down the public staircases that meander through that city’s hills. Soon the pain was gone and Fleming was a walking convert.
The excursions led to Fleming’s next bestseller, a book on the secret stairs of Los Angeles. It proved so popular that he decided to write a sequel, this time about the secret stairs of the East Bay.
“I have a daughter at Cal,” said Fleming. “My wife and I were visiting her and she took us on some walks because she knew of our interest in walking and my obsession with stairways. I just fell in love with the East Bay.”
Fleming will be talking about his new book, Secret Stairs of the East Bay: A Walking Guide to the Historic Staircases of Berkeley and Oakland, on KQED’s Forum with Michael Krasny today at 10 am. He will also speak at Pegasus Books on Solano on August 5 at 7:30 pm., and is planning to lead a walk of the some of the stairways on Saturday, August 6.
Fleming’s book is not just a description of the historic stairways that permeate the Berkeley hills. He has linked multiple staircases together to create circular hiking loops that take an hour or two to walk. Fleming ranks the walks on their difficulty, distance, and the actual number of stairs a walker will climb, and intersperses tidbits about the houses and landscape along the way.
There are 18 walks in Berkeley, 16 walks in Oakland, and four in other parts of the East Bay, all illustrated with an easy-to-read map and all starting from a public place, like a park or cafe.
“It is part travel book, part local color, and part exercise,” Fleming wrote in the introduction.
The staircases throughout the East Bay were built after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, which prompted thousands of people to move to the then-small-cities of Berkeley and Oakland, Fleming explained in the book. To meet the growing demand for houses, developers began building homes in the hills and began building streetcars to serve the new homes. The staircases were constructed to help residents walk to the trolleys, said Fleming.
Virtually all the walks offer magnificent vistas.
“The East Bay stairs rise from the alluvial plain that rises up from the Bay,” said Fleming. “At every staircase you turn around and the view is spectacular, of the bay and of the islands in the bay.”
As Fleming was wandering through the hills doing research, he was struck that so many neighborhoods had houses built as much as 100 years ago. It was a stark contrast to Los Angeles with its emphasis on the new and modern. Fleming weaves that architectural history into his descriptions of the walks.
“For me, an architectural buff, the East Bay is really charming,” he said. “The streets are filled with homes by John Galen Howard, Bernard Maybeck, Julia Morgan and Leola Hall. The houses are still there and are so well preserved.”
Putting together a book about the stairs of the East Bay was easier than doing the one on Los Angeles. When Fleming started walking near his Silver Lake home, there were few maps and few details about the history of the city’s stairs. When he came to Berkeley, in contrast, he found that civic groups like the Berkeley Path Wanderers Association and Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association had already mapped the staircases and published books on the city’s architectural heritage. That body of work enabled Fleming to create the loops and test them out in a relatively short three-month time period.
“When I came to Berkeley, “I expected to be looked at like some interloping carpetbagger,” said Fleming. “I thought people would say, ‘Hey fellow, we don’t need some LA guy to come up here and tell us how to walk. We already walk. That is the opposite of the reaction I got. Everyone said, ‘do you know about this staircase? Have you seen this walk?’ Everyone I hooked up with, from organizations to individuals, was so helpful, so welcoming and warm.”
Fleming was reluctant to name his favorite Berkeley staircases because “it is like choosing your favorite dish at your favorite restaurant.” But when pushed, he admits a fondness for the first walk his daughter, now an incoming fourth year student, took him on. The hike went up the Rose Steps and the Tamalpais Steps. A variation of that walk in now hike #10 in Secret Stairs of the East Bay.
“That won my heart,” said Fleming.