The mark of a truly livable city is one that has an endless supply of places to explore. Either this means that the city is constantly changing- new restaurants opening, new happy hour spots, new transit lines connecting neighborhoods, general neighborhood and city improvement, etc. or it means that there are countless hidden wonders just waiting to be explored.
The second is certainly true for this post. I have lived for a total of probably 20 of my 23 years in Portland, the entirety of that time in the same house in the West Hills above Portland State University. During the summer after my freshman year at Seattle U, I moved back to Portland to work and became reinvigorated with the excitement and charm of the City of Roses. Especially for my historically rich neighborhood, sidewalks still lined with iron rings for hitching horses outside of houses. I got my hands on a map of the Southwest Hills, a wonderful piece of cartography that laid out each and every winding street, complete with a key labeling pedestrian-friendly streets, trails, and stairs. I credit this summer as the summer I fell in love with staircases. Luckily, my fascination with staircases has became more than just a summer fling…it has come to represent the most passionate pinnacle in my endless search for urban beauty. Stairways are our guides to the most inaccessible and unforgettable spots, symbols of the search for the tucked away and most local areas in cities. They allow pedestrians to access higher locations, acting as connecting joints from street to street, neighborhood to neighborhood. They are almost always inconspicuous, portals to the undiscovered, and it has been my greatest joy in city exploration over the past four years to find a new stairway. If one is found, the instinct is to immediately climb it.
Nonetheless, I spent whole days that first summer and many since exploring the hills of my childhood, rediscovering stairways whose overarching trees hid fairy houses. It was also the beginning of running the trails and stairs of the Marquam Trail. Those countless hours have added up and I can confidently say that I know the destinations of most ambiguous-looking windy side streets in my neighborhood.
However, in early June when I moved back to Portland and into the same house of my childhood, the family decided to go on a stairway hike of the neighborhood for Father’s Day. I had received a book entitled The Portland Stairs Book by Laura Foster as a gift for Christmas, a slim light orange paperback containing descriptions of Portland’s supposed 196 public stairways and a few guided walks of ones that are connected on a loop. We located a walk in our neighborhood, one that circled an area that I knew surprisingly little about. I have certainly located my own favorite stairways in the neighborhood surrounding Patton Street, Broadway Drive, and Vista Avenue over the years, but Foster pointed out others of interest in the lower part of our hill, closer to Portland State University. Her walk proved entertaining and quite surprising, as many parts of it crossed over and skirted the freeways of Highway 26 West and 405 South. I am excited to share with you this new neighborhood discovery.
We began by descending Vista Street, a wide treelined artery of the West Hills known for its large white mansions, unbeatable views of the city, bikers whizzing by, and the Vista Spring Café. After passing Montgomery Street, we reached a stairway that I had passed hundreds of times, but never taken the opportunity to follow. To my surprise, it descended into a quiet cul de sac on SW Mill Street Terrace, a road that parallels below Vista, winding over Highway 26 and then down a steep hill to meet 18th Avenue in Goose Hollow. If you take this road, you can then cross below Highway 26 again through the 18th Street tunnel. City planners surely seem to have fun (re)constructing neighborhoods around emerging highways. The best part of the cul de sac that we discovered at the end of Mill Street Terrace was a second stairway that descends to Market Street. A homeowner of the spiritual, neighborly sort, has erected a notice board at the head of this stairway which seems to display a rotation of poetry. What a wonderful thought- passersby can walk down this narrow, public stairway (if you even notice it is here!) but at the cost of reading a poem or two first.
After descending Mill Street Terrace, we followed the road onto a footpath paralleling the highway used by pedestrians and bicyclists en route from Portland State University to Goose Hollow, the Stadium, or Burnside Street. This footpath is almost undetectable by motorists on the highway even though only a mere chain link fence separates the peds from speeding cars. It’s something else to experience that harsh of a contrast- on foot vs. 60 mph wheels. We continued our trajectory of paralleling highways by crossing over 14th Avenue at the base of the 16th Street hill and meandering through a small park at the intersection of 14th and Hall Street. This time, we walked alongside 405 South, which leads to the Marquam Bridge. Whizzing cars to our left and a peaceful, treed hillside rising sharply to our right.
We finally turned away from the steady roar of the highway to ascend a metal stairway off Cardinell Street. It rises amidst a canopy of greenery, hundreds of steps. Once we reached the top, sounds of the highway were muffled and dim, absorbed by the green wall of the rising hill. We meandered down the middle of quiet streets, enjoying spectacular houses and even more magnificent views. What a way to be welcomed back to this beautiful city! And as we circled the base of the hill and ascended the back of Davenport Street back home, I marveled at the adventure. Three miles of hills, stairs, overpasses, footpaths paralleling highways, ascending stairs into woodland neighborhood, most of these unreachable for those without the most eager sense of discovery. And for a native Portlander just returning to her habitat, there is no shortage of that.
Addendum: I recently found Laura Foster’s blog, and low and behold! She has a post about poetry posts, and mentions the one that we came across on her walk! See her post here.