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Taking a stairway to health

Writer finds balm for his body and soul by climbing L.A. treasures.

April 13, 2010|Steve Lopez
  • Charles Fleming alleviated back pain by climbing public stairways carved into the region's hills. He is the author of "Secret Stairs, A Walking Guide to the Historic Staircases of Los Angeles."
Charles Fleming alleviated back pain by climbing public stairways carved… (Los Angeles Times )

So this guy goes to the doctor for back pain and the diagnosis is pretty awful: The patient is going to need spinal surgery again, for the third time in three years.


FOR THE RECORD:
Charles Fleming photo: With Steve Lopez's column about Charles Fleming, author of "Secret Stairs: A Walking Guide to the Historic Staircases of Los Angeles," in Wednesday's Section A, the photo of Fleming was credited to the Los Angeles Times. Times photographer Rick Loomis took the picture. —


FOR THE RECORD:
Charles Fleming: In Section A on April 14, Steve Lopez's column about Charles Fleming, author of "Secret Stairs, A Walking Guide to the Historic Staircases of Los Angeles," referred to the house where William Faulkner wrote "To Have and Have Not." Faulkner was one of two credited screenwriters for the 1944 film, based on the novel by Ernest Hemingway. —

Charles Fleming thought back on all the misery he'd endured the first two times he was cut open like a Christmas goose. He gave about two seconds' worth of consideration to the doctor's proposed disc-ectomy and said thanks, doc, but not just yet.

He couldn't face the knife again.

Just one problem: What to do about the crippling pain?

Fleming, a best-selling author whose books include "High Concept: Don Simpson and the Hollywood Culture of Excess," had his wife, Julie, drive him down from their hilltop home in Silver Lake to a flat stretch of pavement. He got out of the car, clenched his teeth and walked, trying to stretch out, and it felt OK. In fact, it was the only thing that relieved the pain.

He started modestly, covering two blocks or so in those early days, back in 2006. Then he got braver, and looser, and soon he was up to half a mile, followed by a mile, followed by long, therapeutic walks that felt really good. Much better than surgery, in fact.

Fleming is no doctor, but he thinks he has a reasonable medical explanation for this miracle cure called walking.

"Your spine is supposed to be curved," he said, throwing his head and shoulders back and arching the small of his spine. But we're often slumped in the wrong direction whether slaving at a desk or sinking into a sofa. "When you walk, your shoulders are back, your hips are out," and the spine curves the right way, taking pressure off the lower back.

Emboldened by this discovery and his new agility, Fleming began seeking out and walking up and down the public stairways that were carved into the hills of Echo Park, El Sereno, Highland Park, Hollywood, Mt. Washington, Pasadena, Silver Lake and Santa Monica in the 1920s and '30s, delivering travelers to and from mass transit lines.

Those stairways were largely forgotten when the automobile became the rage and trolleys were abandoned to make way for the modern city, but they're still there, some of them covered in vines, a few of them littered with drug and alcohol debris. To this day, many of them serve as the only entryway to houses that have no nearby street.

You do see the occasional story about people living in hideaway bungalows accessible by several hundred steps, and the classic stairway reference is to the scene in Hal Roach's short film "The Music Box," a 1932 classic in which Laurel and Hardy deliver a piano up a steep flight between Vendome Street and Descanso Drive in Silver Lake.

Fleming learned a great deal from a book called "Stairway Walks of Los Angeles," by Adah Bakalinsky and Times reporter Larry Gordon. But when he discovered that it was out of print, he began working on a book about his own discoveries and adventures, and it's just been published.

Fleming says there are roughly 400 staircases in Greater L.A., and he has "walked, measured, studied, photographed and mapped more than 275" of them in researching "Secret Stairs, A Walking Guide to the Historic Staircases of Los Angeles." The author leads monthly stairway tours and has twice taken me on hikes in the last couple of weeks, once in Echo Park and once in Silver Lake.

I'm not going to lie. I felt once or twice like I might keel over, and I could imagine the paramedics doing Laurel and Hardy one better by losing control of my gurney 350 stairs up an incline. But Fleming went easy on me, and once I caught my breath, it seemed all the more ridiculous that anyone would pay good money to use a fitness center StairMaster when these historic treasures are still around.

There's something magical about the stair walks. You leave the known city behind and visit a quiet place built for an entirely different kind of living. Bungalows, some of them 100 years old, sit amid towering oaks and wildflowers, no roads or cars in sight.

Fleming can point out the house where Anais Nin died, the house where William Faulkner wrote "To Have and Have Not," the cabin-hotel where Ernest Hemingway once hung his hat, the place where Tom Mix's saloon used to be and where his horse might be buried (in the vicinity of a Ralphs supermarket).

Walking the stairs is like time travel, and you can picture schoolchildren, homemakers and bricklayers huffing up and down the flights on their way to school, to market and to work.

"Oh, it's fantastic," Echo Park resident Will Hamblet said when Fleming and I bumped into him on the Loma Vista steps off Glendale Boulevard in Silver Lake.

Hamblet, a singer, walks the stairs regularly and said he didn't want too many people to find out what they're missing. His mission on the day we saw him was to cross Glendale Boulevard and solve the mystery of where another set of steps might take him.

So if your back hurts, Fleming suggests you consider visiting the stairs before the hospital. He makes no guarantees, except that his book is a more pleasant experience -- and much cheaper -- than surgery.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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