Late this past spring, armed with a revised edition of the 1998 book Walking the Steps of Cincinnati, I began traversing parts of the city I had never seen before—its back streets, alleys, hidden neighborhoods, obscure parks, and yes, steps. As I did, I came to know it not as a new place, but as a much richer, varied, and historically intriguing place than even I, a Cincinnatian who drank the Kool-Aid long ago, could have imagined.
Evidence that I was onto something unusual was not hard to find. It was in the puzzled expressions of nearly everyone to whom I mentioned the project. “The steps?” they would ask. “You mean, like, to the church in Mt. Adams?” And I would confirm that the staircase from Pete Rose Way to Holy Cross-Immaculata Church, famous for its Good Friday pilgrimages, were some of “the Cincinnati steps,” but only the most well known.
Throughout the city, on hillsides large and small, in communities affluent and afflicted, in plain sight and choked by weeds, are some 400 sets of steps. Some, like those at the north end of Main Street, are long enough that you can’t see the top from the bottom. Others, like the many short drops to River Road in Sayler Park, contain just three or four risers. All are relics of the past, of a time when cars, and even inclines, were not available and residents needed efficient access to differing elevations. Today, they remain (most of them) as conveniences for the willing and explorations for the adventuresome. As Mary Anna DuSablon, the now deceased author of the first edition, wrote: “The steps offer tantalizing, stunning, and breathtaking views. They offer exercise. They link communities in a pedestrian-friendly manner. They show off Cincinnati’s history in an attractive, accurate way. Only San Francisco has more public steps than Cincinnati.”
Did DuSablon’s book make much of a splash when it was first published 16 years ago? I wasn’t living in town at the time but it seems safe to assume that it did not. The 22 primary walks that the book outlines (linking the various sets of steps to nearby streets and attractions in user-friendly loops), along with its 13 secondary walks (featuring fewer steps, but still interesting environs), had the makings of a cult favorite, but the zeitgeist for its wide acceptance and utilization was not quite in place. Now it is. Now we have Paddlefest celebrating the river, bike trails crisscrossing our neighborhoods, and a new Washington Park and Smale Riverfront Park reminding everyone of the treasure in our green spaces. Thousands of people are re-colonizing downtown, reflecting a national trend that looks only to be intensifying—in short, an explosion of interest in all things urban. For all of these reasons, I think this time around Walking the Steps of Cincinnati, revised and updated by Connie J. Harrell and John Cicmanec, has the makings of a winner.
But above all, it is a splendid collection of walks. From the “Painted Ladies” of Columbia-Tusculum to a hidden ravine in Mt. Echo Park; the stunning vistas available in Fairview and Bellevue Parks and the architectural legacies of Upland Place in Walnut Hills and Overlook Avenue in Elberon Heights (and many more), the walks provide intimate glimpses of a city you thought you knew, but suddenly realize you didn’t. Or at least, not like this.
In the course of my own perambulations around almost all of the 22 primary routes, I was constantly surprised by both the natural beauty of the topography—so many green hillsides, so many deep woods—and the incidence of manmade beauty so easy to miss in quotidian life: the Rookwood entrance on the north side of the Rothenberg School in Over-the-Rhine; the statue of Tecumseh gracing the particularly handsome Thornton Triangle in Sayler Park; the remains of the Price Hill Incline that peek, like Mayan ruins, from the trees along Maryland Avenue; the Stephen Foster statue in Alms Park. (I know: What is he doing there? Looking at his beloved Kentucky, according to the book.) I saw lush, well-groomed vegetable gardens from Price Hill to Walnut Hills; gentrification proliferating like mulch, especially in Mt. Auburn and Fairview Heights; and so many views—lovely, sweeping, majestic views—that we can all again thank George Kessler, the landscape architect hired early in the 20th century to help Cincinnati plan its parks, and who decided, That’s easy, put them on the hilltops.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I acknowledge that not everything about all of these walks is ideal. Some take you through areas that can be intimidating; examples are the streets below the Gage steps in Mt. Auburn, the back reaches of Brighton and Walnut Hills, and Baltimore Avenue and Denham Street in North Fairmount. On several of the west-side walks, and in the neighborhoods bounding the basin, I stepped around a lot of trash. Tidiness is often, although not always, a luxury of affluence.
While many of the steps themselves are in good shape, some are badly overgrown. The St. Clair Heights Park Steps in North Fairmount are a vivid example. Innately graceful, they rise 240 feet, the equivalent of 20 stories, three at a time, then a short walkway and then three more, through what’s known locally as “the tunnel.” In the ’90s, after being closed for a decade, they were refurbished, so their overall condition is good. However, the honeysuckle is closing in so fast that it is like a green fog—you can hardly see more than a few steps ahead at any point. I checked with the city, and while the steps themselves are the responsibility of Structural Engineering, the clipping of the bushes belongs to Public Services. And—why am I not surprised?—neither department has any money for steps. So they go untended.
Connie J. Harrell, one of the two coauthors of the revised edition, is a 62-year-old resident of Mt. Airy who grew up in South Fairmount and has always loved to walk. “Just a few years ago,” she told me, “I started looking for neighborhoods other than my own to walk in, and that’s how I discovered the steps. I found out online how many there are, what condition they’re in, and the amount of use they get, and then I started looking for a book that might tell me more. That’s how I found Mary Anna’s.”
Eager to try what DuSablon had put together, Harrell enlisted a companion, John Cicmanec, who is slightly older than she but an equally enthusiastic hiker. Together, they did all of the walks, many of them more than once, noting what had changed. When a friend at Ohio University Press evinced interest in an update of the book, Harrell and Cicmanec took on the project. “Mary Anna must have spent many long hours researching the book,” Harrell said, “because there is just so much history contained in the text. Unless something significant had changed, we did not alter her narrative.”
The history she refers to, always interspersed with detailed and generally easy-to-follow descriptions and maps of the walks, is segmented by neighborhood. The Walnut Hills walk uses the home of Lyman Beecher, father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, as entrée to a fact-filled discussion of free black culture in post–Civil War Cincinnati. Focusing on Wendell Phillips Dabney, an African-American whose weekly newspaper, the Union, was an influential trove of local black culture for most of the first half of the 20th century, DuSablon’s text makes the city’s past seem not so distant.
Each chapter has its historical add-on, some covering the Grandin Road Viaduct, the Neff mansions in Price Hill, the Mt. Lookout observatory, and an early plan to create a health spa on the “mountainous” grounds of the Elberon Country Club (present Overlook Avenue) in Covedale. All are compelling. That last one, for instance, quotes a contemporary promotional brochure pledging “a hilly resort community…where the air is crisp and bracing, the sunshine tonic, and the green things pleasant to the eye. In the springtime, the balmy breezes, nearly always from the West, are heavily laden with the fragrance of the blossom and the vine.” We’re talking here about property just a few blocks from the present location of Western Hills High School. Who knew?
The walks, as DuSablon constructed them, range from less than a mile in length to almost five. Most can be accomplished in an hour; a few require more. When I asked Harrell which were her favorites, she hesitated, then said Mt. Echo…and Clifton…and Fairview Heights…and, and. I understood why it was difficult. They all offer something. I also asked her why certain descriptions didn’t ring true. The Pica Street steps from Crestline Avenue to Elberon in the Mt. Echo walk are described as “charming”; they’re anything but—trash-strewn and weedy. “That’s poetic license,” she said.
OK, I can accept that. But I have a harder time accepting the condition of some of the steps. While most of the risers are intact, many are without the handrails that can, especially for climbers of a certain age, make the going a lot easier. Rich Pohana, geotechnical engineer for the city, said that keeping handrails solid is the biggest single problem the city has with its steps. Vandals steal the metal and sell it for scrap. “We do everything we can,” he said. “We bolt them in such a way that you really can’t take them apart. But then people just take a sledgehammer to them.” To really fix a deteriorated staircase, depending on length and stage of decay, can cost tens of thousands of dollars, and in some instances dramatically more. “We had some older money to replace railings and do a limited amount of work,” Pohana said. “But it’s been a while since the program was funded.”
In recent years, some few steps have been closed at the neighbors’ request, usually because of a perception of unsavory activity. The staircase from Keys Crescent, in East Walnut Hills, to William Howard Taft, below, is one. In each case, Pohana said, a “process” involving mailings, surveys of businesses, and postings of signs must take place. Ultimately, his department and the planning commission make a recommendation to city council, which has the final say. “We get a lot of closure requests,” he told me. “Right now, because of the lack of funding, we can’t even do inspections, so we’re dependent upon someone calling us if they find a problem. We do have a database, and we’d like to do more, but when funds are limited, they have to go to the highest, best use.” Sometimes the best use is to refurbish a staircase. Mt. Auburn’s venerable City Steps, from Reading Road to Liberty Hill, were recently redone—for a variety of reasons, I was told, but the provision of access to the Horseshoe Casino seems to have been high on the list.
I loved the experience of climbing the steps—the drama of the views, the history revealed, the contrasts in neighborhood styles, and the special character of a city in which it can all come together so seamlessly. I hope no more of them are closed. Harrell and Cicmanec’s update of Mary Anna DuSablon’s book conveys enough that if all you do is read it, you’ll be enriched. But you won’t get the exercise, which is wonderful, and you won’t rise (so to speak) to the physical challenge of climbing something like the Main Street Steps, which escalate for 840 feet (“Onward!” wrote DuSablon) before finally landing at Jackson Hill Park. Worse, you won’t feel the wonder of the steps, this gift from the past that helps, however subtly, to brand us as unique. Cincinnati has many assets that are rightly celebrated, but its steps have never, to my knowledge, been among them. With any luck, this book may change that.
Originally published in the September 2014 issue