A Los Angeles writer started an event called the “Big Parade” that makes use of a number of staircases in the city. But, this event serves to highlight the city’s overall lack of walkability compared to other big cities around the world:
Koeppel’s early obsession evolved into a piece for Backpacker magazine called “I Climbed Los Angeles” that ran in June 2004. It’s since developed into an annual event called the Big Parade — a two-day, 40-mile urban hike from downtown Los Angeles to the Hollywood sign that covers 100 public stairways along the way. For this year’s parade, the fifth, Koeppel expects several hundred people to join him from around the country…
The parade’s secondary mission is to encourage a sense of community. Koeppel says the parade keeps pace with the slowest walker; he describes it as a simple “walk with neighbors.” The event is free, and Koeppel has even rejected sponsors to keep things as casual as possible. Each day’s walk is divided into segments, with a main loop of five or six miles, and participants are invited to come and go as they please.
“The majority are people who have not walked more than five or six miles in L.A. in the streets in their entire lives,” he says. “Taking them and showing them what L.A. is like on foot — showing them secret passages and landmarks and things they never see from outside the window of their car — has been just really fun.”
Koeppel, who’s known beyond Los Angeles for his celebrated book on the history of bananas, maintains that his purpose in starting the Big Parade isn’t to prove that Los Angeles is a walkable place. He denies the axiom that nobody there walks — rather, he says, nobody seems to walk when you’re looking out from a car window — and sees the city’s infamous sprawl as simply an opportunity for pedestrian exploration. The Big Parade, he says, “is a way to reestablish the presence of individual propulsion within that sprawl.”
So the “Big Parade” is a pedestrian cry in a wilderness of cars and vehicles…
Two things in particular intrigued me in this story:
1. Walking can involve building community. This reminds me of Jane Jacobs’ famous axiom about “eyes on the street” or her thoughts about “public characters” who are out and about and known in neighborhoods. Places like Los Angeles simply don’t allow for much informal encounters on the street level. But, a group of people walking together or near each other can engage in conversations in ways that are very difficult to do in cars. (This also reminds me of an idea my dad had years ago about putting scrolling sign boards in the back windshields of cars so drivers could deliver messages to each other. I imagine the ratio of destructive versus encouraging messages would get high pretty quickly…)
2. The article suggests a number of the staircases were constructed for homeowners who wanted to get off the streetcar and make the trek up to their house. This is a reminder of the extensive streetcar system that Los Angeles once had. How might the city be different today if those streetcars had survived or had been replaced by a similarly spread-out system of mass transit? As historian Kenneth Jackson explains in Crabgrass Frontiers, streetcars had a number of factors working against them. However, these staircases are a suggestion of what Los Angeles might have been.