Not-So-Secret Stairs of San Francisco
If you’ve ever been to San Francisco, you have certainly experienced some form of street map deception—that is, a manageable distance on paper suddenly becomes a daunting feat of endurance when you are confronted with the fact that there is a small mountain standing between you and your destination. The hills of San Francisco—44 of them, to be exact—define the character of the city, but are barely discernible on a street map due to the strict grid layout. The city’s modern-day street configuration dates back to 1839, when a Swiss surveyor named Voiget laid out a rigid gridiron street system for the fledgling town. Despite the dramatic topography of the area, he took a hills-be-damned approach and imposed a strict alignment over the undulating landscape. Less than a decade later, in order to accommodate the rapid growth of the gold rush, the grid was expanded in a big way and has continued to shape the city to the present day. Love it or hate it, Voiget’s brash attempt to defy nature led to an interesting phenomenon: on the streets too steep to connect with a straight road, stairway connections were often constructed to continue the grid. Sometimes zig-zagged, sometimes straight, these “ghost streets” simply provided pedestrian access to the main thoroughfares of the neighborhood and many of them (almost 80) still remain today. However, they have become so much more than utilitarian — in an age where so little public construction is devoted solely to pedestrians, they act as secret passageways between neighborhoods, each one taking on the unique character of the private properties that surround it.
The steps at 16th and Kirkland feature an elaborate, mosaic-ed mural.
The perfectly landscaped Lyon Street stairs have become a destination for athletes-in-training and tourists alike. (photo: SF Chronicle)
The overgrown “urban jungle” surrounding the Filbert Street steps has been home to a troupe of wild parrots since the 1990s. (photo: foundsf.org)
The Esmerelda Street stairs are accompanied by a pair of slides… in case you don’t feel like walking. (photo: sanfranciscodays.com)