Stepping Up to Restore Cincinnati's Neglected Pedestrian Stairways

The city says it can't afford to maintain them. Can private citizens make up the difference?

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Cincinnati Transportation and Engineering Department

There are more than 400 pedestrian staircases threading through the steep hills of Cincinnati. Today they resemble a kind of skeleton of that city's once-robust pedestrian infrastructure, originally designed to get workers to and from their factory jobs and afford residents of hillside neighborhoods easy access to the old streetcar system.

But the staircases of Cincinnati have long been in decline, with the city steadily reducing funding for their maintenance and eventually de-funding them altogether in 2011 as the municipal budget got squeezed. At the same time cities around the country are looking to build new pedestrian facilities in the urban core, or to improve what already exists, too many of Cincinnati's staircases are overgrown, littered with broken glass, and poorly lit. While steps in some neighborhoods attract runners looking to boost their heart rate, many others are perceived as dangerous places, incubators for drug dealing and prostitution.

North Wendell Alley steps in Cincinnati (Courtesy Spring in Our Steps)

A group called Spring in Our Steps, founded in 2011 by Cincinnati residents Christian Huelsman and Pam Sattler, is now working to change that. Huelsman and Sattler have devoted themselves to restoring and rehabilitating not only public staircases around the city, but also other neglected pedestrian connections like alleys and sidewalks.

It’s part of a growing revival of interest in these long-neglected foot links between Cincinnati neighborhoods, many of which have been struggling with high crime and poverty. The city’s extreme topography continues to reinforce socioeconomic divides, as it has throughout Cincinnati’s history. Some wealthy neighborhoods historically rejected staircases because they wanted to remain inaccessible to outsiders from different classes.

Huelsman says he was catalyzed to start the group when he was robbed at gunpoint in his driveway, losing years of his work as an urban planning student in the theft. "I was motivated by my love of history and the city," he says. "It's about the importance of tending to these hillside neighborhoods."

The group just wrapped up its second "Stepping Up in April" event in which volunteers, using borrowed equipment and donated supplies, tackled the cleanup of 30 stairways in 30 days. From the group’s website:

Our mission for Stepping Up in April was this: To show how much a few dedicated individuals can accomplish in one to two hours. Each of our days consist of some excuse as to why we should not donate our services to a community. We’re too tired, too busy, or too far away. As soon as we make that leap toward an act of altruism, the rest is history.

The history of the staircases themselves has been obscured by time until recently, when two undergraduates from Northern Kentucky University took on the ambitious project of writing a book about them.

Andrew Boehringer and Shane Winslow, both history and anthropology students, became intrigued by the staircases they saw as they drove around the city just across the Ohio River from their school. Their book is tentatively titled Ascent: A Cultural History of Cincinnati's Stairways.

The first staircases in town, built in the latter half of the 19th century, were made of wood. They were a vital part of Cincinnati's expansion up from the banks of the river. "It was all about access to personal transportation," says Winslow. "Originally, personal transportation was only allotted to select groups."

Boehringer says that boom times in Cincinnati's busy port and factories meant that working people needed reliable public transportation, but running streetcars up and down the steep hills was expensive and sometimes impractical. So stairways were built to get pedestrians to streetcar stops. After many of the city's wooden sidewalks were washed away in an 1883 flood, both walkways and steps were replacement with concrete. Winslow explains that the city continued to invest in the stairways until the 1990s, when the funding began dwindling to its current level of zero.

Huelsman acknowledges that a couple of major capital repairs are still underway, with funds coming out of the 2011 budget. One is being fitted with a bike trough so that cyclists can go up and down safely and easily. Another that leads to the city’s new Horseshoe Casino is being rehabilitated as well.

Whether or not the city maintains the stairways, Huelsman says, people who need to get from one place to another will do what they have to do. And not all of those people have access to cars. "Although dozens of stairways have been closed, users generally find a way around barriers and fences," he says. "Even in cases where stairways have been eliminated, pedestrians will still carve a path of their own."

Boehringer says he and Winslow have observed this phenomenon of “desire lines” tracing their way through the hills of Cincinnati — as well as Quito in Ecuador, a city he is studying for comparison. "If you look around town, you will see trails on the hillsides. What we saw in Quito, we see in Cincinnati."

Huelsman says he's hoping that the current renaissance of interest in the city's stairways will keep growing in momentum. Perhaps, he says, one day stairways in Cincinnati could be more like those in San Francisco, where steps are not only well-maintained but also are beautifully enhanced by landscaping. Cincinnati, he points out, has its own neighborhoods with beautiful Victorian architecture.

"Our stairways are a valuable cultural resource that transcended topographical barriers throughout Cincinnati's history," he writes in an email. "As externalities catalyze the desire to move back to cities, Spring in Our Steps is pleased that people have begun to embrace our stairways and narrow alleys, as so many before them had."

Fortview Place steps (Courtesy Spring in Our Steps)

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.