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The Hidden Legacy Of Seattle Stairways

When I meet Jake and Cathy Jaramillo, they tell me they consider Seattle a world-class city when it comes to public stairways. According to Jake, Seattle’s 650 stairways put the city in the top three for US cities with stairways, with Pittsburgh in first place and San Francisco in second. And since they moved here in 2001, they've been climbing Seattle’s stairs to meet people and uncover some of the city’s hidden nooks and crannies.

One of the stairways Cathy and Jake walk with me (and feature in their book "Seattle Stairway Walks") is the Blaine Street stairs located at 10th Avenue East and Blaine Street in Capitol Hill. On the south side of the stairs is a secret garden of sorts. Streissguth Gardens have been open to the public since 1996, when architect Dan Streissguth and his wife bought the land on the south side of the Blaine Street stairs. They transformed it from an overgrown, brambly mess to manicured flower gardens. Streissguth Gardens are open to the public, and quite often Dan Streissguth is in the garden. He and his wife live right on the other side of the stairway, and Cathy and Jake have a standing invitation to stop by the Streissguth home whenever they’re walking the Blaine Street stairs.

Not far from the Blaine Street stairs is Seattle’s longest stairway, the Howe Street stairs. People often jog up and down the Howe Street stairs for exercise. And as we head up the Howe Street stairs, we meet one runner who tells us he’s hitting the stairs to get his strength back after quitting smoking a couple of months ago.

Many of Seattle’s stairways were built for the trolley, now a non-existent transit system. Commuters used the stairs to get down to the trolley. Cathy tells me that some trolley materials were even recycled into stairways. She says that proves Seattle recycled even before recycling was a popular idea, and that’s something to be proud of. Jake and Cathy believe Seattle’s hundreds of stairways should be a point of civic pride.

Since many stairways meet up with roads, the Seattle Department of Transportation maintains 507 public stairs. Seattle Parks and Recreation maintains 60 public stairs. But usually, Seattle’s stairs don’t get extra attention unless something bad happens, like back in 2011 when a bicyclist died after riding some hard-to-see stairs in Eastlake. Since then, SDOT has put warning lights up and other devices meant to slow cyclists down. 

As we walk, Cathy and Jake tell me they want me to climb one final stairway; the 106 metal stairs at theVolunteer Park Water Tower. Cathy and Jake call the Water Tower "the poor man’s Space Needle" because stair climbers are rewarded with a free 360-degree view of the city. And the view is great, totally worth the climb. Jake tells me this kind of exploration and discovery is the whole point of climbing Seattle stairways. It can be a great workout, but even better it can be a new perspective on different parts of the city. And that perspective is so distracting, they forget all about the huffing and puffing and sweating that usually goes along with climbing hundreds of steps.


On Saturday, February 9, from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. Cathy and Jake Jaramillo and the group Feet First are hosting Stairway Walks Day.