Los Angeles is home to a few hundred public stairways, whose presence throughout the city is largely forgotten. Officially defined as streets made of stairs, these passages were built during the streetcar era of the early 20th century so commuters who got off in the valley could reach their homes in the hills. The writer Dan Koeppel started to walk them himself about a decade ago, and he hasn't really stopped.
"As I walked I started uncovering more," he says. "I got really obsessed with the idea of finding stairways."
Koeppel's early obsession evolved into a piece for Backpacker magazine called "I Climbed Los Angeles" that ran in June 2004. It's since developed into an annual event called the Big Parade — a two-day, 40-mile urban hike from downtown Los Angeles to the Hollywood sign that covers 100 public stairways along the way. For this year's parade, the fifth, Koeppel expects several hundred people to join him from around the country.
"Somehow the idea captured people's imaginations," he says.
Despite the length (and uphill nature) of the journey, the Big Parade is meant to live up to its name — an event whose primary purpose is to entertain. Koeppel fills the route with talks and performances from local figures, and historical insights into the city's configuration. (He used to post old photographs of the stairways on telephone poles along the way, but they kept getting stolen before the parade.) Some stairways, like the famous one from the Laurel and Hardy film "The Music Box," come with anecdotes of their own.
The parade's secondary mission is to encourage a sense of community. Koeppel says the parade keeps pace with the slowest walker; he describes it as a simple "walk with neighbors." The event is free, and Koeppel has even rejected sponsors to keep things as casual as possible. Each day's walk is divided into segments, with a main loop of five or six miles, and participants are invited to come and go as they please.
"The majority are people who have not walked more than five or six miles in L.A. in the streets in their entire lives," he says. "Taking them and showing them what L.A. is like on foot — showing them secret passages and landmarks and things they never see from outside the window of their car — has been just really fun."
Koeppel, who's known beyond Los Angeles for his celebrated book on the history of bananas, maintains that his purpose in starting the Big Parade isn't to prove that Los Angeles is a walkable place. He denies the axiom that nobody there walks — rather, he says, nobody seems to walk when you're looking out from a car window — and sees the city's infamous sprawl as simply an opportunity for pedestrian exploration. The Big Parade, he says, "is a way to reestablish the presence of individual propulsion within that sprawl."
Take, for instance, one stretch of the parade along the Pasadena Freeway. When the highway was constructed half a century ago, planners gave pedestrians a narrow walkway, just barely separated from the busy traffic, that today is largely unused. Yet Koeppel says that many people find it a thrill to parade down the walkway in defiance of this uncomfortable pedestrian corridor.
"I tell people: embrace this," he said. "Let's look at the ridiculous policy that created this as a sidewalk that city planners thought people might walk, and let's confound it and actually walk it."
Koeppel certainly isn't alone in drawing attention to the city's walkable heritage. This crowd includes the journalist Charles Fleming (author of a 2010 book on the city's stairways called Secret Stairs), the local savant Robert Inman (author of a self-published stairway guide), and the hiker Liz Thomas (who recently made news for climbing all 300 stairways in the city). The trend tends to inspire labels — the Washington Post just called Koeppel an "urban adventurer" — but he sees his walks as the simple expression of his curious nature.
"I'm not really an adventurer," he says. "I just like to walk a lot."