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Hillside Dwellers Have to Watch Their Steps

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If you have to climb 70, 80 or even 100 or more stairs to reach your doorstep, life takes on inevitable hardships.

Pizza deliveries become iffy, at best. A simple chore like taking out the trash becomes a pain in several parts of the anatomy, the rump included.

Friends, if they visit at all, show up panting and rubber-legged.

“They can barely say hello,” says Lois Fletcher, describing life on a street impassable to cars because it consists of just one long, steep stairway. Her guests have to ascend 69 steps to reach her narrow yard on Loma Vista Place in Silver Lake.

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“The first thing they always say is, ‘I don’t know how you do this every day.’ ”

There are tricks. On Loma Vista and other “stair streets,” an unusual feature of Los Angeles’ older hillside neighborhoods, residents have to trudge home after parking their cars on other blocks down below.

They learn to carry the groceries in stages. Milk, ice cream and other perishables get hauled up immediately. Dog food, tuna and paper towels can wait in the trunk until your next trip home. If you really stock up, it can take four or five days to get everything in and put away.

Fletcher’s husband, Chip Clements, gave her an upright piano a few years ago. That it now sits intact against the wall of their den is nothing short of miraculous.

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“It was un-be-lievable, " Clements says of watching the movers grapple with it. “I thought, ‘They’re going to replay the old Laurel and Hardy movie.’ ”

The slapstick comedy “The Music Box,” which won an Academy Award in 1932, featured the comedians’ Sisyphean attempts to move a piano uphill and was actually shot on one of the precipitous streets of Silver Lake, a community built in the 1920s northwest of downtown Los Angeles.

Loma Vista Place crosses an entire hill. If you turn onto it from Glendale Boulevard, traveling east, the street looks conventional at first--for 75 yards. Then the asphalt ends and only the stairs rise between the houses. Going up, there are 10 flights, 182 stairs in all. The street levels briefly at the top, tilts into a long, ramp-line decline, then tumbles down to Allesandro Way in six more flights of 166 stairs.

The passage is no wider than an alley, lined with mailboxes and overgrown foliage--eucalyptus and pepper trees, banana plants and bamboo, soaring palms and head-high pear cactus. In places, the limbs form canopies. Some flights are half-carpeted in ivy or rimmed with dead grass. Huge agave plants bloom like flowers on the hillsides.

Getaway Cottages of an Earlier Era

Many of the homes are scarcely more than one-or two-bedroom cabins, getaway cottages of their day.

Diane McDonald, a real estate agent who bought here 14 years ago, says property values are higher than ever, but most places still sell for less than $200,000.

“I tell people when they’re moving in, ‘This will be the hardest move you’ll ever make.’ ”

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Even dragging luggage back and forth is an ordeal. The savvy resident plans ahead. No one wants to get down the stairs having forgotten a purse or briefcase.

“My policy is: Never leave the house without something in your hand,” McDonald says. “I live my life in a very organized fashion, so I never go up more than once a day.”

The west slope of the hill, affording views of Silver Lake Reservoir and the Hollywood sign, is the most desirable. McDonald lives on the east side, facing Allesandro and the Glendale Freeway. Her newspaper lands right on the steps each morning, but she still must hike to get it. The deliveryman walks only half the way up.

To take out the trash, McDonald makes a full descent. Her trash can--and 31 others--form a disjointed chorus line at the bottom of the hill, on Allesandro. Neighbors take turns with the onerous task of moving them all into the street on trash day.

Parking is difficult. The homes have no garages, and the streets down below, where you can park, are crowded with cars from other garageless households. The trade-off is beauty and privacy. Squirrels and opossums account for much of the traffic on Loma Vista, along with neighbors and occasional tourists.

“There’s a book on stairway walks,” McDonald says. “I do occasionally look out and see a group of people going by, and they’ll have the book in their hands--which is kind of funny.”

That book, “Stairway Walks in Los Angeles,” was co-written by Larry Gordon, one of The Times’ assistant metropolitan editors. Published in 1990, it maps out 18 walking tours of the city’s hillside neighborhoods, from Highland Park to Venice. The research took about a year, turning up some 200 public stairways, including a small number of stair streets.

“A lot of [the construction] coincides with the early development of Hollywood,” Gordon says. “The stairways tended to lead down to mass-transit points. People were able to ride the Red Cars home and walk up the hills.”

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The isolation of the homes is sometimes striking, he says. “There’s a weird voyeurism when you take some of these walks. You’re right up against people’s windows. People are having their breakfast in their pajamas. It’s pretty funny.”

Loma Vista is not the city’s longest set of stairs, but it’s one of the longest unbroken by cross traffic. It also struck Gordon as particularly overgrown and mysterious.

“The further I got into it,” he says, “it was like, ‘Look at this place!’ It’s among the most isolated--and, in its own way, very romantic.”

‘I’ve Never Had One Trick-or-Treater’

No lights illuminate the street at night. Trisha Skard, who moved in three years ago, calls it too spooky even for Halloween.

“I’ve never had one trick-or-treater,” she says. “People are freaked out. It’s just too ominous at night.”

But she loves it. “Springtime is unreal--the butterflies, the hummingbirds . . . little creatures everywhere. You’re just completely surrounded by nature in the middle of the city.”

Mists move in and lie on the hills. Sunlight catches the Hollywood sign. Distant lights, some from cars climbing toward Griffith Park, remind one man of the mountains of Italy.

The scenery never gets old, but, unfortunately, longtime residents find it more and more difficult to scale the hills. One elderly man rigged a backyard funicular to ferry himself up--until poor health finally forced him to move. Another man, bedridden, lay almost wholly dependent on a wife who also became a prisoner of the stairs.

“Very, very sad,” says Claudia Kunin, who lives in the home that was across the street from them. “Any time he fell, either I had to lift him back up in bed or she had to call the Fire Department. You do need to be physically fit to live here.”

Those who love the street, as Fletcher does, are ever-mindful that a day will come when they can no longer cope with it.

Fletcher, who is 60, quotes Edna St. Vincent Millay: “Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand; come and see my shining palace built upon the sand.” Fletcher seems determined to savor the magical place, despite its arduous climbs.

“One night, about four days before Christmas last year,” she says, “I put on some earphones, playing Christmas carols, and slowly walked up the stairs to the top of the hill. You can see the lake and all these lights around. I just thought, ‘Thank you, God, for this.” ’


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