I didn’t understand how hilly Seattle was until I got here.* I went to college in Boston, where I lived within a few blocks of Beacon Hill for three-and-a-half years. Have you been to that Beacon Hill? If you’re kind of out of shape, you might consider it a hill. But really, it’s a sort of gentle rise, especially compared to our little corner of the Pacific Rim.
So when I moved here, I was unprepared. I threw myself into it – I was 21, so I could fake the endurance I hadn’t rightly earned, even though I was accustomed to flatter pastures and a car-based life at the time. But Seattle is hilly enough that I snort when we’re described as a bike-friendly city (although not only for reasons of topography). My laundry cycle accounts for the fact that my walking commute home usually leaves me as sweaty as if I’d just jogged a few miles. So it goes.
Seattle is hilly enough that there are certain slopes with stairs, because the hills are too steep to sustain a plain old sidewalk. Yes, in certain places downtown and in Phinney Ridge and probably other places I’ll get to in the next few months, the sidewalks have those raised ridges so you can dig your toes in as you climb to your office on Third on an icy day. But western Capitol Hill, Queen Anne… these places require actual, honest-to-god stairs.
This is the top of the stairs that connect western Capitol Hill to Eastlake – Broadway Ave E to East Lakeview Blvd, if you want to be precise. You can find them at Broadway and Blaine, at the end of a little cul-de-sac bordered by schmancy houses. Stairs so steep and so long the horizon just eats your view of them at certain angles, like this one. Let’s descend!
A thing I love about Seattle is the way some houses take advantage of the weird landscape. I imagine that living here – let alone being whatever animal lives in that little house – must feel like being on the edge of the world. If we had proper thunderstorms, watching them from here would feel like watching the world being reborn.**
So I figured our little group would see new and unexpected things – it was the purpose of what we were doing, and none of us had ever been through this area. But we were shocked as hell to come upon a lovingly tended garden that stretches across a long acre. A little engraved plaque*** informed us that its name is Streissguth Gardens, and the map and brochure (pulled from a well-stocked little pocket on an informative sign) details its intricate family origins – complete with a timeline of births, marriages, and agreements with the city.
If you’re not walking down these stairs or taking a stroll down the quiet dead-end street that forms its western boundary, you’ll never know this is here. And it’s too bad, because it’s so lush and verdant in that incredibly Pacific Northwestern way that it feels like you stumbled onto freaking fairyland between two quite dense neighborhoods in a quite dense city. There are multiple paths (and a solitary stone bench, conveniently marked on the map), which weave through what the map says is a constantly changing tapestry of 68 trees, more than 280 shrubs, hundreds of labeled plants, and other seasonal delights. I liked this garden so much I kind of wanted to eat it. In time.
Oh, you know, just this perfect untouched hillside bordered by picturesque houses and apartment buildings, which will be forever protected due to an agreement the family gardeners made with the city.
The most charming bit of laying down the law in Capitol Hill and Eastlake. This is what you get when you live on a dead end most people are unaware of: this liberty to be adorable and weird and make your own little world.
This is just out there, this pile of beautiful glass. I think part of the reason I was so enchanted by this was that it was the first time I’ve seen broken glass near a street in Capitol Hill that wasn’t clearly from someone getting their car’s stereo stolen.
One of the most perfect doorways I have ever seen. This is on the street between Broadway East and Lakeview. Google Maps doesn’t even label it. Did I stumble onto Brigadoon? I might have stumbled onto Brigadoon.
The stairs get a little less charming from here. This gate (which I speculated contained an ominous pile of little shoes) came right after a tagged-up abandoned bit of fence and just before a streetlight that, even at about 3 in the afternoon, seemed calibrated to buzz at exactly the eeriest frequency science can find.**** You also leave the world of other people’s back and side yards at this point, and between that and the suddenly thick canopy of trees, you feel like you slipped into a horror movie set. It was good to be with friends – and not just because my friends also walk fast.
So, at the bottom of the stairs, you’ve reached East Lakeview Blvd. I’d been here, but only ever while driving les chats to the vet. It’s a fun curve to whip around in a car, so, uh, be careful. I’d noticed the stairs before while driving, but they always seemed dark and gloomy and not any place I was super inclined to explore.
We took a little side trip here to the park across the street and beyond, but more about that another day.
The super-awesome-but-kind-of-inexplicable thing about these stairs is that they have a twin. Just down the street, leading up to Howe at Broadway, is another parallel set of stairs. God forbid you walk back up the same way, I guess.
The other stairs feel like a most unorthodox way to travel through a little neighborhood. The rails break frequently to allow access to all these adorable tiny paths that lead to adorable, often large houses, all positioned across the hillside to give the best views of the mountains and Lake Union. It’s quite a feat. I may be plotting on how to live there myself, but as a middling-income-earning singleton with cats, well… we’ll see.
I mean, COME ON. Some people walk through this every day. You know, just to get groceries or whatever. Like it ain’t no thing. Man.
Beautiful people leading picturesque lives… on top of incredibly developed thigh muscles. Woof.
This is what gets me about parts of Capitol Hill – you’ll turn a corner, blase as can be, and suddenly you see the antidote to all the stupid loud horrible construction that’s such a pox on so many areas right now. Walk around a corner, and there’s someone who’s settled enough into their weird little space that their vintage Mercedes is just hanging out in their driveway – you know, the one with the 35-degree decline. You know that garage is full of every issue of The Rocket and Kurt Cobain’s old pants and who the hell knows what else.
In conclusion: put on your adventure pants and take the stairs. There are houses that just aren’t car accessible, that you won’t wander by naturally whilst heading toward QFC. Go go go. Know the pain that I now know of being very unlikely to ever have a hot tub in a perfect enclave with a picture window overlooking sea planes and the Olympics. I mean… go take a walk and appreciate some of the odd little areas that are this natural, quiet part of the city. Ahem.
Can’t make it out yourself? Try these:
- A lovely little drawing from the Seattle Sketcher at the Times.
- A Yelp review of the Howe Stairs (well, this is Seattle, ok).
- All the stairs you can eat. You’ll be seeing more about these in the coming weeks.
Apparently Seattle has 84 documented public stairways. If the rest of them are a fifth as charming as this little loop, I’ll have a happy rest of 2013.
*A thing I learned when walking up Denny from Belltown to see my first apartment and then, years later, walking up Nob Hill from the BART to my hotel: topographic maps are your friend. Woof.
**I like thunderstorms, ok? Makes me all wistful and rhapsodic-waxing.
***Not pictured, as I got too excited over this map (!!!) to think to take a picture of the sign. Oh well.
****I took a video of this, but I have a new camera and totally spaced, so I took it in portrait orientation. Whoops and ew.