Polly Campbell: Exploring Cincinnati’s public stairs

One of my favorite guides to Cincinnati is the eccentrically wonderful “Walking the Steps of Cincinnati,” by Mary Anna DuSablon, written in 1998 and revised in 2014. It’s a set of walks that take routes through Cincinnati neighborhoods. Not all of them, just the ones with public stairs. Each walk is carefully devised, not necessarily around the most scenic or interesting sights, but to incorporate as many sets of public stairs as possible. That’s what makes each walk eccentric and an adventure. 

Fig Alley public stairs
Fig Alley Steps

Cincinnati has 383 sets of public stairs, maintained by the city. Some, like the Main Street Steps, are long, upward marathons, where you can’t see the top when you’re standing at the bottom. Others are only two or three steps set into a sidewalk. There are 34 walks in DuSablon’s book, some of which I had already done, but during the pandemic, my husband and I started working our way through the rest. 

Some you’ll know about: the glorious Mount Adams steps that some Catholics climb on Good Friday, stopping every step to pray. Other times of year, you might just stop to catch your breath from the climb and the beautiful views at the top. Some go up through the beautiful residential neighborhood of Prospect Hill, reminding me of the Filbert Avenue steps in San Francisco.

But the beauty of using these stairs as a basis for walking through the city is that they take you to parts of Cincinnati you might otherwise never see. Even driving, I often find enclaves and tucked-away corners of neighborhoods I’ve never been to before. That’s even more so when walking. Some have taken us past backyards and abandoned buildings, where the railings have been vandalized for scrap, through barren thickets of honeysuckle and the flotsam of litter. But all give a glimpse into Cincinnati history and architecture, the changing fortune of different neighborhoods and the ways we’ve moved through an urban landscape over time. And, almost always, a great new view. 

As I walk them, I often think these public stairs could be a real recreational and tourist attraction for Cincinnati. I can imagine community groups sponsoring them, organizing step-related activities, making maps and checklists for climbing all of them, an annual “stairfest.” 

“If I ever founded a nonprofit, I think it would be to preserve and promote these stairs,” I wrote on Facebook several years ago. 

Facebook, as it tends to, set me straight immediately. There is such a nonprofit. Spring in Our Steps has taken on the steps and alleys of the city, lobbying for signage and lighting, cleaning up stairs and alleys with groups of volunteers. They’ve hauled away tons of tires and trash, reviving walkways through neighborhoods that had fallen into disuse. 

“These public steps are a unique feature of Cincinnati,” said Christian Huelsman, who founded Spring in Our Steps. “Very few cities have the number we do.” Obviously, Cincinnati’s topography called for them when people had to walk to get places. “Originally they were wooden, but that was too hard to maintain, and in the 1870s-’90s they were updated in concrete,” he said. “Over a century later, they still serve their communities.” 

Where you can see Spring in our Steps’ work best is from Over-the-Rhine up through Mount Auburn, where SiOS worked with Cincinnati’s Department of Transportation & Engineering to get 14 stairway gates marked and lit. Huelsman has ambitions to expand that. What with busy streets and highways, and the hills, we forget how these old neighborhoods relate. “We’d like to see stairs creating shortcuts that let you walk from Camp Washington to Walnut Hills. It would be a contiguous network, like roads or a bike network, but for walking,” he said. 

Recently, they worked to re-open and name Fig Alley and the Ohio Avenue Steps that connect upper Ohio Avenue to Vine Street in Clifton Heights/University Heights/Fairview, working with the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning as a partner. These projects take a lot of work. On a rainy day recently, I went for a walk with Elizabeth Fisher-Smith, who’s on the board of Spring in Our Steps, to see one of their latest works, a 10-year project. We met at a little playground at the corner of Gage and Rice streets in Mount Auburn, just under a towering, rocky cliff with Christ Hospital at the top. I couldn’t locate myself geographically any more specifically than that. 

She showed me the new Wendell Alley Steps, finished with handrails and lighting and drainage. We walked down Wendell Alley, paved with old bricks that’d been newly cleaned of debris, trash and dirt. A retaining wall alongside looked like ancient ruins. It makes a great shortcut for anyone going from OTR up to Mount Auburn and Christ Hospital. We instead turned right, and since they were close by, took the Main Street Steps all the way down to Mulberry Street. 

Along Mulberry Street, we walked past old buildings, some being lived in, some falling apart, and new residential buildings, me still wondering how I’d never been on the street before. Somehow, we found ourselves back at the bottom of Rice Street without having to climb back up. 

That whole complex of stairs is a good place to start. I love the way it makes you understand the topography of the city in a new way, and imagine how people used the public stairs in, say, 1910. 

Of course, you should hit the Mount Adams “Good Friday” steps. And if you’re doing this for exercise, take on the Main Street Steps. 

I’ve also loved the Sayler Park walk, which had us going down short steps to U.S. 50, where people used to catch buses, walking along its margin, then up some more steps, then back down some. We gave up for fear of getting hit by a car, but we found the most amazing old steamboat Gothic houses, plus Cincinnati’s smallest park, and we had an excuse for dinner at the Buddha Barn. 

A Price Hill walk, once we figured out where it started, took us along the astonishing street of houses on Maryland Avenue, past the abandoned support of the old incline, then up to the Incline District. From one high point, where we could see the river and the rooftops of several neighborhoods, it seemed that we were looking at a 19th-century city, with nothing but red brick and slate roofs coming up from the river.  

The Norwood walk was ruthlessly non-scenic, but with interesting glimpses into historic manufacturing. We looked both ways and did it, but that was the original edition – the new one says the path is closed.  

If you feel a little tentative about neighborhoods you’re not familiar with, take a group. We’ve never met any scariness ourselves. 

And, if you want to be more involved, go to www.springinoursteps.com  to read about new projects and get in on volunteering.

Polly Campbell covered restaurants and food for the Cincinnati Enquirer from 1996 until 2020. She lives in Pleasant Ridge with her husband, and since retiring does a lot of reading, cooking and gardening, if that’s what you call pulling weeds. 

She writes monthly on a variety of topics, and she welcomes your feedback and column suggestions at
editor (at) moversmakers.org.

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