Monday, July 18, 2011

books: Secret Stairs East Bay

I'm excited to be reviewing a new book, Secret Stairs East Bay: A Walking Guide to the Historic Staircases of Berkeley and Oakland. I first heard about it through Oakland Urban Paths. The author, Charles Fleming, wrote a book about walks on historic staircases in Los Angeles, and was looking for people to test his walks in Oakland and Berkeley for a similar book on the East Bay. I happily tested a couple of walks, and K gamely joined me. But I only got to read the rough drafts of those walks, so I was happy when the completed book arrived.

The book isn't just a bunch of maps showing where to walk, it's got bits of history, architecture and local color as well. It was inspired by "pub walk" books in England and Ireland, where each tour begins and ends with a meal or drink. True to form, Fleming points out places to eat or drink on many of the walks.

Secret Stairs includes walks in Oakland and Berkeley, and a few in Albany, El Cerrito and Kensington. Each walk is designed to be between 30 and 90 minutes, is rated for difficulty from 1 (casual) to 5 (rigorous) and includes a stair count.

lovely stairs

And a feature I love, it also includes bus and BART info, so you can do walking tours outside your neighborhood without driving to them. There are tons of paved paths and stairways (over 400 in Oakland and Berkeley), so the book isn't meant to be an exhaustive guide. Besides some history and architecture, the walks also includes detailed directions and a map. The directions are very useful -- some of the stairways can be hard to find without them.

Walking urban paths and staircases can be a great way to explore an area. Although I know our area fairly well, walk #32 (Montclair) showed me a couple of new stairways, and #33 (Merriewood) was almost all new to me, and caused me to notice some interesting houses I hadn't seen before.

To review the finished book, I took one of the walks I didn't know. I selected #30 (Upper Rockridge West) because I had some errands to run in Rockridge. Secret Stairs lists it as 1 hour, 30 minutes, 3.2 miles, 593 steps, and a difficulty of 4, so I knew I had a pretty good hike ahead of me.

gate to Upper Rockridge

The walk starts near Rockridge BART, then heads east towards Upper Rockridge. All along the way, the book points out things to notice: a Craftsman home here, an interesting concrete stamp there. Interspersed with the sights, Fleming gives some history of the area. In the case of Upper Rockridge, it's known for losing a lot of houses in the 1991 Oakland hills firestorm. The architecture reflects that, as some of the houses are old, while others are very clearly newer.

The walk winds its way around the streets and stairways in Upper Rockridge. It makes no attempt to be efficient, but does its best to explore the area. As a result, it includes such gems as:
Then climb a sharp 48 steps, under a giant palm tree, to land on Margarido again. Did we walk down just to walk up? Yes, we did. This a stair book! That's why we're here!
I faithfully followed the directions, and stopped and took lots of pictures along the way. And to test the complete experience, I stopped and Ben 'n Nicks along College at the end of my walk for a cold pint.

I love the book, but it's not perfect. The area map in the introduction has some of the numbered marks in the wrong place, for example. #30 (Upper Rockridge West) is shown near #29 (Upper Piedmont Park), when it should over by highway 24 and #31 (Upper Rockridge East). And this is matter of choice, but how could walk #20 (Broadway and Oak Glen Park) not start and end at Commonwealth Cafe and Pub? Since the book is inspired by pub walks, what better place to start and end than an English-style pub? It would add less than a half mile of level walking.

But the flaws are minor; the detailed directions are accurate and the descriptions are fun to read, and overall it's a wonderful book. It would make a great gift for a friend or neighbor who's into walking, or into Oakland or Berkeley history.

Lots more photos from the walk:
secret stairs: upper Rockridge west

Although Charles Fleming is based in LA, he'll be in town for a book launch party, Friday, August 5, at Pegasus Books on Solano, in Berkeley. If you want to buy the book ahead of time, get it from your local independent book seller.

I received no compensation for this review (other than the review copy.) If you purchase the book through the above link, I get an affiliate fee. Regardless of whether you use the link or not, buy your copy from a local, independent bookstore. Shop local!

The book event at Pegasus Books was a lot of fun, and there was a huge turnout. This morning Charles led us on walk #1, Claremont: the Uplands, in Berkeley. Some pictures here:
secret stairs

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