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Stairway to Heaven 

Chain smokers, stay home: climbing the city's stairs with an expert

Wednesday, May 19 2004
"Warning: People with severe heart conditions, arthritic knees, or two-pack-a-day smoking habits should participate at their own risk." Such a disclaimer would be appropriate for "Stairway Walks in San Francisco," a gluteus-grinding celebration of the 20th anniversary of Adah Bakalinsky's book of the same title. Now in its fifth edition, Walks is an authoritative guide to the (literally) breathtaking urban hikes offered by San Francisco's 350-plus sidewalk stairways; it has sold more than 150,000 copies since its first pressing in 1984.

"Oh, the views," Bakalinsky sighs when asked about the rewards she's gleaned from compiling her unusual guidebook. She started the title more than two decades ago while volunteering for the San Francisco Public Library's City Guides program, and professes that her research was life-changing. "You can never know what's at the top ... until you get up there. Each one is a secret that you can unlock, whether it is a gorgeous view of the Pacific Ocean to the south or the changes in the clouds and sky to the east. When you get to the top a veil is lifted, as if the place you are seeing is not real."

Although lazy pedestrians doubtless regard Bakalinsky's walkways with some dread, she speaks of those paths with the fondness of a concerned mother. She bemoans the damage some of her favorite walks suffered during natural disasters and urban development in the '80s, but finds solace in recent discoveries.

"There is always something new that I haven't seen before, from Eureka Valley, Golden Gate Heights, and every other area. On some of them you get these microviews, beautiful perspectives between houses, that you may have missed the first few times. Some of them only happen once -- depending on the type of day and the lighting. After a dozen times, there's always something that makes it new."

Her updated account of San Francisco's public stairs includes a number of such discoveries, with revised maps, suggested microviews, and a new route that traverses Fort Scott in the Presidio. Each tour offers a step-by-step description with well-researched commentary on local architecture and history.

This week, City Guides presents six simultaneous tours to celebrate the book's anniversary, leading treks up, around, and over the steps of eastern Bernal Heights, Eureka Valley, Fairmount Heights, Forest Hills, Golden Gate Heights, and southern Russian Hill. Fledgling stair-masters are advised to wear comfortable walking shoes and bring a camera; neighborhood residents are encouraged to join the participants to share insights about their areas' distinctive characteristics.

"A stairway in a neighborhood unites us," Bakalinsky claims. "They're aesthetically pleasing and a focal point that is shared among neighbors and visitors. They are so many things to so many people. It exercises your mind and eyes, and offers a gift that might vanish at any moment."

About The Author

Nate Cavalieri


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