Day 730: Taking The Stairs

originally published December 30, 2013

The sage philosopher and observer of our cultural eccentricities Mitch Hedberg once said, “An escalator can never break; it can only become stairs.”

That may be true, and it may be soberingly poignant. Also, it’s possible that I simply know of no other way to effectively begin an article about stairs.

Every morning I find myself facing the same choice on my way up to work from the subway. Do I heave my frame up the 30-40 steps to my building or flop lazily against the escalator handrail and let the labor of 19th century inventors Jesse W. Reno and Charles Seeberger do the work to haul me up from the depths?

It will surprise absolutely nobody who knows me… I take the escalator. If ever I am motivated to spew forth the extra energy for that fleeting moment of cardio and leg-strengthening climbing work, it won’t be at 8:00 in the morning when I’m facing a tedious 8-hour sentence inside a drab cubicle. There are, however, some stairs in the world that I’d very much like to climb. Staircases which are in themselves an attraction worthy of a trip.

But I’ll tell you right now – I don’t care if they’re just a few blocks away from my hotel; I’m taking a cab.

While it would probably take me a few years to get in shape for it, I’d love to ascend the Haiku Stairs. Plopped onto the south side of the Hai’ku Valley on the island of Oahu, these steps lead brave hikers to an astounding 2800-foot peak. There’s nothing up there apart from a decommissioned Naval radio station and a killer view, but that’s enough to draw in the tourists. 3,922 stairs is a hefty climb for sight-seeing, but from the photos I’ve seen it might be worth the effort.

And the risk. Since 1987 the staircase has been closed to the public. Even after an extensive $875,000 rehab job a few years ago, there are no plans to tear down the No Trespassing signs and allow tourists a legal shot at the ascent. “Liability concerns” is the excuse – the fallout from an excessively litigious society that requires safety mechanisms and someone to blame if anything goes wrong. Determined hikers will disregard the signs and make the hike – hopefully without any fear of legal penalty for doing so.

This one may be on my bucket list, but it’s a distant bucket for a time when I’m finally liberated from my Cheeto-laden couch-days. So maybe never, let’s be honest.

From the Piazza di Spagna up to the Piazza Trinità dei Monti, the Spanish Steps in Rome are about as gorgeous as one could reasonably expect a staircase to be. Francesco de Sanctis won a 1717 competition with his design, and the connection between the two piazzas has become one of Italy’s most famous landmarks. At its base lies the Fontana della Barcaccia, or the ‘fountain of the ugly boat’, so named after Pope Urban VIII (the hip, jive-talkin’ pontiff) was amused by a boat that had been swept to the location courtesy of a flooding Tiber river.

English poet John Keats lived beside these magnificent steps. My daughter visited them on a school trip last year as well. Which reminds me, if you happen to swing by the Spanish Steps and notice a small red Canon digital camera lying unattended on the sidewalk, please pick it up for us. On a related note, never lend your teenage kid your camera.

Okay, cue up “Gonna Fly Now” on the iPod and prepare to run. Rocky Balboa made the 72 stairs outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art famous by implementing them into his training regimen in Rocky and every one of its sequels except for Rocky IV, in which the stairs were replaced by a Russian mountain and I think some kind of log-sawing exercise.

The scene has become one of the most iconic cinematic moments ever shot in Philadelphia, and the city has properly commemorated it with a bronze statue of Sylvester Stallone in full boxing regalia. Actually, that’s not totally true. The Rocky statue was commissioned by Stallone himself, and used as a prop to demonstrate Philadelphia’s love for the underdog fighter in Rocky III. There was debate as to whether the statue should be displayed by the city, but in 2006 it found a permanent home beside the Art Museum.

If you’re on the other side of the globe and similarly looking for a  famous cinematic staircase, then you clearly plan your vacations around some very strange concepts. But you’d be in luck – there is a magnificently massive set of stairs in Odessa, Ukraine that have also found their way into movie infamy.

If you’re not familiar with Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 masterpiece of dialectical montage editing Battleship Potemkin, then you’ve missed out on a groundbreaking display of tension created through the deft snippage of film. As the tsar’s soldiers march down the stairs, the people flee. Shots are fired, a massacre ensues, and suddenly Odessa’s gigantic staircase is a piece of cultural history.

Again, perhaps not worth the cost of airfare to the Ukraine, but if you’ve really got your heart set on travelling to all the famous staircases of the world, this one is not to be missed.

Without question the most somber stop on your journey would be the Survivors Staircase in New York City, which will be displayed prominently once the WTC museum opens up this spring. Hundreds of lives were saved as people used these stairs to flee 5 World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, as the world collapsed in a dusty heap around them. When the last of the wreckage was cleared, the staircase was the final visible structure above ground.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has been leaning on the WTC developers to preserve the stairs. In 2008 they were moved via crane about 200 feet away to a spot on Vassey Street as construction of future buildings had finally elbowed its way onto the site. Once the museum cracks open its doors the staircase will be there, along with two ‘tridents’ from the façade of the Twin Towers and a handful of other oversized artifacts that survived the attack.

There’s a lot more to staircases than I’d ever thought to consider before today. And yes, there’s a part of me that would like to tour the world and see all of them. Though if the truth must indeed bleed its way onto this page, if any of these staircases happen to have an escalator located beside them, I might take that instead.

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