As is true of each hidden gem of San Francisco that I’ve been writing about, each is unique to its respective part of the city. San Francisco is truly a city of neighborhoods reminiscent of European cities, most prominently the numbered arrendisements of Paris. Each neighborhood is aptly named with its own descriptor: Noe Valley, the Mission, the Lower Haight, the Richmond, Cole Valley, West Portal, or even more shorthanded, the acronyms of NoPA, SoMA, and FIDI. Each has its own character- the murals, burritos, and hipsters of the Mission, the yuppies of the Marina, the fog and grid-like streets of the Sunset, the strollers of Noe Valley, the Victorian houses of the Haight and the mansions of Pacific Heights, or the remnant industrial look of SoMA. Each neighborhood with its crooks, its cracks, its nooks, and its crannies. Each with its own flavor and charm: from hidden favorites to prominent landmarks like Twin Peaks, Fort Mason, or the Palace of Fine Arts.
Among the grandness of Grace Cathedral, Ocean Beach, and Bernal Hill that I’ve been writing about, there is one particular gem that I’ve been saving to write about, hoarding it really. Residents of Noe Valley or Diamond Heights may know of it existence. Others may know of it if they have read Adah Bakalinsky’s book Stairway Walks of San Francisco that has framed many weekend walks around San Francisco’s hidden areas only accessible by stair. But we are few and far between. Even those residing on the nearby streets of Laidley, Harper, Diamond, or Beacon may pass it by for years, not realizing the presence of a hidden, shaded, luscious passage directly beside them.
The charming spot that I am referring to is colloquially referred to as the “Harry Stairs,” or more pointedly, Harry Street. A set of 230 stairs spanning from Laidley to Beacon, passersby walking on either of those two streets can obliviously overlook it, not knowing it exists. The entrance to the stairs on Beacon Street is located behind a hedge and feet away from the nearest house, easily masquerading as a private passage. The entrance on Laidley Street is similar unmarked, urbane and concrete, ascending into a canopy. Another reason why the Harry Stairs are so elusive is one cannot look from one end of the stairs to another. They ascend quite a distance, and bend around a hedge in the middle, transforming from concrete to wooden. There are five to six houses that reside on this street (yes, not only is Harry Street a real street but the only place that this street exists is on these stairs), each tucked away from the stairs under their canopies and privy to breathtaking views of the city. The only downside must be bringing home groceries. Adah Bakalinsky says in her book that this area is one of “townhouses and detached dwellings. The views between houses are exceptional. This enchanting area of the city is well worth the walk…the Harry Stairs [is] the most magnificent San Francisco stairway of all” (77).
I am not really sure if the Harry Stairs is really this elusive, and maybe my hope of its tucked-away silence comes from a desire to keep its location and charm a secret. I imagine that couples wanting to take an adventurous walk on a Saturday afternoon and who may have stumbled across Harry Street may have been deterred by its name and the fact that it was impossible to find on map. I have been visiting the Harry Street stairs for many years, first as a child, dragged along on walks when we visited Casa Sanchez every year. The stairs seemed endless- a climb into heaven maybe. But a slog nonetheless. I reacquainted myself with the stairs and their wooden, canopied charm in the summer of 2009, when I lived at Casa Sanchez for the summer. I would regularly run up all 230 of Harry’s stairs and was so inspired upon my return that I would often have to write. (http://littlestbean.blogspot.com/2009/08/yeah-i-come-from-california-god-is.html).
These days, I climb the Harry Stairs regularly when on long walks along the Diamond Heights ridge, showing visiting friends the lay of the land, or while having long conversations on the phone to avoid sitting and talking. One of the reasons why I am drawn to the Harry Stairs/Harry Street (one and the same) is my history of living on streets that aren’t accessible by car. Stanhope Ct., my love for many years, is also one of these. It’s fun to tell people that I lived for 18 years on a street that hasn’t existed since the early 1900s. Harry also reminds me of the Broadway Stairs in Portland- wooden, rickety, and prone to moss in the winter. Ann and I recently walked up the stairs on a pleasant late afternoon. People were just coming back from work, including the resident of 30 Harry. Unaware that one of the “famed” residents of Harry Street was directly behind me, I wondered outloud to Ann, “I wonder what it would be like to live on Harry Street. I bet it would be quite the experience.” Much to my surprise, I found my question answered. We met the owner of 30 Harry, who has lived there for 20 + years. He told us that moving to Harry Street was one of the best decisions he’s ever made. It’s private, it’s beautiful, he has breathtaking views, and no one knows its there. Sounds like a dream to me!
I have done much thinking about the charm of urban stairways and my propensity for them, which deserves a blog post, an essay, even a book of my words to wrap around their appeal, but Harry may be the perfect example. Urban stairways are an excellent dichotomy of utility and whimsy- useful to the people who must use them regularly to reach their home of residence or to take a shortcut to the bus. And an excellent resource for the imaginations of wanderers and explorers who enjoy the novelty of the local stairway, an insight into the psyche of the people who live nearby. But to those who don’t care about the stairway, or just don’t need its utility, stairways often remain untrodden or passed by- passed off as private stairways, in danger of trespassing. Or maybe just not noticed- tucked behind a post, a hedge, squeezed in between two houses, or located at the end of a driveway. But to those of us who are intrigued, curious, fascinated, even obsessed (ahem), with urban stairways and their charm, they become portals to another world.