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Thread: NYC Stepstreets

  1. #1

    Default NYC Stepstreets

    November 10, 2002

    Afoot in Stepstreet Land


    Whether pristine, or eyesore, like the one at Clifford Place, near the Grand Concourse, these passageways hold a certain allure.

    YOU could drive by a dozen times and never know it was there. Like a concrete machete cutting through the urban jungle, the stepstreet slashes a shrouded, tree-lined passageway between the hodgepodge of old buildings that separate bustling Broadway and tranquil Park Terrace East at West 215th Street. Inaccessible to cars, buses, bikes and even wheelchairs, it serves only pedestrians with sturdy legs.

    Except during rush hour, rarely are more than one or two people on the steps at any single time. Still, the ascent is not necessarily lonely: with dozens of windows facing out from the adjacent apartments, you never know if you are really alone with your winded thoughts. But the steps are not just for commuting and communing with one's soul. They are also for finding cats, playing curb ball, sometimes even for dying.

    New York City has 94 stepstreets, most of them in neighborhoods in the west Bronx and upper Manhattan whose names are no coincidence: Kingsbridge Heights, University Heights, Morris Heights, Washington Heights.

    These hidden passageways, built largely in the early 20th century as the expanding New York City grid system ran into steep hills and declines, substituting steps for streets didn't seem such a big deal. There were many more pedestrians, and the automobile was still a newfangled invention.

    The steps are still there, ranging in length from just six stairs to the 171-step monster on West 170th Street in Highbridge, the equivalent of an 11th-floor walk-up.

    New York is not the only city with stepstreets, though it may be the only place that uses the term. Hilly San Francisco has about 20 of them, according to José Luis Moscovich, executive director of the local Transportation Authority, and Pittsburgh may have the most: 762 sets of what the city calls "city stairs," according to Craig Kwiecinski, a mayoral spokesman.

    In New York, where stepstreets show up on some maps as official streets, they cause endless problems for unaware motorists. But for pedestrians, they provide shortcuts to subway stations, bus stops and shopping strips. Some people even use them for an old-fashioned pre-Stairmaster workout.

    Or at the very least, to wax nostalgic about such activity. Miguel Pimentel, 31, a garment worker from nearby Inwood, who was trudging up the steps at 215th Street one recent Sunday with his son and nephew, used to work out on the stepstreet years ago, using bottle caps to measure his stamina. He would line up 10 caps at the bottom of the stairs, and run them up one at a time. Then, he would do the same thing in reverse. Simply recalling the time he raced up and down the stepstreet 50 times in a single day made him consider a return engagement. "I want to see if I could get my old record again," he said.

    A few minutes later, a casually dressed, gray-haired Larry Rosen climbed up the stepstreet, accompanied by his partner, Claire McCurdy. Mr. Rosen, a systems analyst at Columbia University, once lost a galosh in the deep snow of the stepstreet and found it two weeks later; the steps also mark the spot where he found two stray cats, including the fearless Arnold, a tabby who became an 11-year companion.

    "The steps have interesting connotations," he said. "They are a part of your life." And even the end of life, sometimes. Back in the 1980's, one of his neighbors, a city worker in his 40's, suffered a heart attack on the stepstreet and died soon after.

    While some stepstreets are picturesque and well maintained, thanks to Department of Sanitation crews, many others, especially those in poorer neighborhoods, are in bad shape. Broken steps, railings and streetlights attract dumping, rodents and, sometimes, crime. Still, even stepstreets carpeted in shattered glass and used condoms are used frequently.

    "They can be beautiful, but a lot of them are left in disrepair," said Adolfo Carrión Jr., the Bronx borough president who used to serve as district manager of Community Board 5 in the Bronx, the heart of stepstreet land. "In my mind, the city has never had a calculated approach to managing and maintaining these pieces of urban architecture."

    The Department of Transportation has rebuilt 16 of the most damaged stepstreets since 1996, and other repair jobs are in the works. But there is no regular cleaning schedule, said Kathy Dawkins, a Department of Sanitation spokeswoman. The results show.

    THE once-picturesque stepstreet along Clifford Place between Walton Avenue and the Grand Concourse in Morris Heights is a good example. The steps, visible from the elevated No. 4 train, are cracked and littered with refuse, and glass collects on the sloping terraces that line the passageway.

    "We've got rats as big as my cats down there," said C. J. Jenkins, a student at nearby Monroe College who lives next door to the stepstreet. "If I come eat breakfast, they smell it. Those rats'll take you out."

    Still, in an age of sanitized, politically correct playgrounds, even decrepit stepstreets like the one at Clifford Place hold a certain allure: the promise of outlaw fun. Tag is popular in the summer, and sliding down on makeshift cardboard sleds is a favorite activity in the winter. The other day, Gary Brown, 12, and Hakeem Rose, 13, proudly pulled up their pant legs to reveal shins and knees nicked with scars. "All these cuts are from the slopes," Hakeem said.

    "The more we get hurt, the better it gets," Gary added.

    The stepstreet at 215th Street, pristine by comparison, is also a makeshift playground. Children can often be found at the top playing curb ball, a variation on the ancient New York tradition of stoopball. Players throw a tennis ball against the curb on one side and then try to make their way around a short base path at the top of the stairs. The children change over the years; the rules are passed on.

    On a recent afternoon, a game went into extra innings, interrupted regularly by passing, panting commuters. A local Little League coach stopped by and inquired about the complicated regulations. Players borrowed a visitor's cellphone to tell their parents they'd be late for dinner.

    Finally, in the bottom of the 13th, 13-year-old Conor Sullivan hit a game-winning home run.

    Copyright The New York Times Company

  2. #2

  3. #3
    Moderator NYatKNIGHT's Avatar
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    Manhattan - South Village

    Default NYC Stepstreets


  4. #4
    Senior Member
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    NYC - Hoboken

    Default NYC Stepstreets

    Yes, thank you for this post. *Never knew any of that before. *Stupid question; are the stairs across from the UN on 1st ave that go up to Tutor City considered a stepstreet?

  5. #5

    Default NYC Stepstreets

    San Fran has alot, the accumulation at Coit Tower.

  6. #6

    Default NYC Stepstreets

    I'm getting to know New York better from these postings than when I actually lived there! Amazing stuff. It's great to find people who *really do love their city. This would never happen in London. Well it used to, but not anymore, it's fashionable to find fault with London these days and yet I still love the place. Especially the local history. If i was a native New Yorker I would want to know all about who built those steps etc. and why and who was that old lady who used to sell peanuts at the foot of the steps.

  7. #7
    NYC Aficionado from Oz Merry's Avatar
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    Default NYC Stepstreets

    Found this old (1995) article on the 'net...

    Step-streets a hard climb

    By Elizabeth Roy, Staff Reporter

    In the struggle between humankind and nature over where the roads will go, step-streets represent a draw. These long flights of stairs offer passage between parallel roads where one is so high above the other that no vehicle could make the climb.

    "Because of the lay of the land, you literally could not have a street there," said Leon Heyward, borough commissioner of Department of Transportation.

    Of the 130 step-streets in the city, 75 to 80 percent are in the borough, climbing its hills from east to west or vice versa, Heyward said. Morris Heights and Riverdale are particularly rich in these pedestrian passageways, but some of the city's longest are in Highbridge.

    Some of the Highbridge step-streets get poor ratings from the people who use them. Most of the complaints are about the garbage that accumulates on the stairs. But, as Rebecca Cartagen, 21, said as she reached the top of one last Wednesday evening, "It's easier than going around the block."

    That night, Cartagen was one of dozens of people who climbed the 132 steps interspersed with 11 landings that connect Shakespeare Avenue and Anderson Avenue to the west. At the summit, 168th Street -- a regular, paved road -- continues up the hill on the other side of Anderson, where the grade is gentler.

    A section of the handrail above the topmost landing breaks away from the steps as a result of an accident last year when a car heading down 168th crossed Anderson and started headlong down the stairs, said Jackie Lessington, 41.

    Tyra Cooper, 8, said she has to climb the stairs carefully because "some steps are higher than the other." Her cousin, Princess Akilah, 10, said they don't hold onto the railing because it's dirty.

    Several blocks away, at 168th Street and Shakespeare, 123 steps curve down to Edward L. Grant Highway. Edgar Guerrero, the 39-year-old co-owner of a grocery store at the top of the step-street, said the passageway is well-maintained. "The only problem is, it's too high," Guerrero said. "When they reach the last step, they almost have a heart attack."

    Alan Fromberg, a spokesman for the transportation department, which has jurisdiction over some of the step-streets, said the department is aware of the problems with them.

    The main reason why the passageways are not maintained better, Fromberg said, is lack of money, but also their maintenance requires skills, such as stone masonry, that are increasingly rare, he said.

    The longest step-street in Highbridge cuts right angles down a wooded hill from University Avenue to Sedgwick Avenue. The descent affords a view across the East River to Highbridge Park. Low stone walls border the staircase on either side.

    The treads glint with broken glass and only the stumps of lampposts remain, but last Thursday, Hattie and Walter Pindell, fishing poles in hand, took advantage of the staircase's disrepair on their way down to the East River to angle for striped bass, flounder and perch.

    Kneeling in a corner where the low parapet took a turn, Hattie Pindell brushed aside the layer of dead leaves to get at the soil under the broken pavement.

    "You can find some beautiful fishing worms here," she said.

  8. #8
    NYC Aficionado from Oz Merry's Avatar
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    Default NYC Stepstreets

  9. #9
    NYC Aficionado from Oz Merry's Avatar
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    Grrrrr .

    Towering Public Staircase Attracts Litter and Crime, Residents Say

    By Patrick Wall

    Locals say that other street steps, such as those at E. 167th St., are cleaner and less prone to
    crime because they are not obscured by trees.

    Steps connect Teller and Clay avenues at 168th St. Parts of the stairs are crumbling and need
    repair, neighbors said.

    HIGH BRIDGE — Winding up a leafy hillside, the stonewalled staircase at East 165th Street rises as high as the seven-story apartment building beside it, connecting elevated Anderson Avenue to Jerome Avenue far below.

    It is one of 63 so-called street steps in The Bronx — historic staircases that link parallel roads separated by steep hills — which have often been allowed to fall into disrepair.
    The stairs at East 165th Street are no exception.

    Over the years, steps have crumbled, branches have overgrown, and illicit activities have thrived in the shadows. Last week, a visitor could find litter, beer bottles, condoms, feces and a dead rat on the stairs, which pass by a schoolyard at one end.

    “Years ago, this was like paradise,” said Roger Hartley, 57, who has lived on Anderson Avenue near the stairs for nearly 40 years.

    But now, he said, “It’s a total mess.”

    Residents and community leaders said city workers rarely clean the steps or prune the greenery around them, leaving the staircase filthy and obstructed. Because of the conditions, many residents avoid climbing them — which makes them prime real estate for seedier purposes, such as sex and drug use.

    “There’s always a lot of strangers there,” said Kilssy, 31, who lives in an apartment at 1055 Jerome Ave. next to the base of the stairs. She asked only to use her first name.

    “They smoke, sometimes there’s partners there doing things they’re not supposed to,” she said. “I avoid them. I’m scared.”

    Groups of men gather on the stairs at night to smoke marijuana, the smell of which wafts into nearby apartments, locals said.

    The late-night crews are drawn to the stairs because overhanging branches block most of the streetlight and the police seldom patrol there, said William Cancel Quiros, 52, who lives at 1038 Anderson Ave. near the top of the stairs.

    “In the nighttime, forget about it, no one goes on those stairs,” Quiros said. “You can’t use them because people are sitting there smoking and mugging.”

    The top entrance to the stairs leads to a cracked pathway that runs besides the fenced-in yard of an elementary school, P.S. 73.

    Yonali Sanchez, 11, who lives on Jerome Avenue and attended P.S. 73, said that many students go out of their way to avoid taking the staircase.

    “They go around the block because they don’t like it,” he said.

    People have long pressed the city to take better care of the stairs, neighbors said.

    Hartley, the longtime Anderson Avenue resident, said that over the decades he has sought help from the borough president, the public advocate, 311 and the local community board. Even broken steps require many requests before they are fixed, he said.

    “I had to fight like hell to get this done last year,” Hartley said recently, pointing to a freshly patched step.

    Chauncy Young, an organizer with the nearby Highbridge Community Life Center, said that when he surveyed P.S. 73 parents several years ago about the school’s most urgent needs, many cited the stairs, which they said were unsafe. After raising the issue with various city agencies and elected officials, new lights were installed on the stairs a few years ago to increase security, Young said.

    Residents regularly complain about the stairs to local Community Board 4, said Jose Rodriguez, the board’s district manager.

    “I get calls at least two, if not three times a week about that particular area,” he said.

    The board, in turn, requests extra repair and maintenance funds for the stairs in its annual budget priorities list, Rodriguez said. He said he also mentions the stairs whenever he meets with the Bronx heads of the Parks and Sanitation departments.

    “The borough commissioners are not paying attention to these issues, so ultimately they’re responsible,” Rodriguez said. “It’s frustrating, to say the least.”

    Normally, the Transportation Department tends to street steps, which are treated as roadways.

    But the Parks Department is responsible for the East 165th Street staircase because the hill they climb, known as Jerome Slope, is a city park. The Sanitation Department also assists with the stairs' upkeep.

    Both agencies plan to increase their presence at the stairs, said Zachary Feder, a spokesman for the Parks Department.

    “Now that our busy summer season has ended, Parks will be able to devote more resources to maintaining this area and will send forestry staff to prune the nearby trees,” Feder said. “In addition, DSNY is scheduled to conduct another of its periodic cleanings there shortly.”

    Rodriguez, the community board district manager, said that while the city should fulfill its obligation to clean the stairs, residents can help by throwing their garbage where it belongs.

    "The city must do their part," he said. "But also the people who live here must do theirs."

  10. #10


    Great thread about an oft-forgotten element of the city.

  11. #11


    Thanks for this thread. I have to move this project to my front burner. I live in The Bronx and know all these steps. I'll have to go around and photograph them. Unfortunately, I've seen people throw their garbage out the window on to the stairway near Jerome and 174th use to have abandoned cars on it, that was about 15 years ago.


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