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City Stairways

By Melba Yee When members of the Piedmont Recreation Department’s Walking on Wednesdays assembled at the Exedra on July 28, they were saddened to see the ad hoc memorial that community members had placed at the Exedra for the St. John family who had lost three of its four members in a tragic, deadly automobile accident in Minnesota on Sunday.

The walk was led by Melba Yee, Priscilla Wanerus, and Albert Chen. Melba said the walkers in the past have explored many of the hidden stairways within Piedmont. Like Piedmont and Berkeley, Oakland has a series of hidden stairways that were developed with the residential development boom that occurred after the 1906 earth- quake in San Francisco when people flocked to the East Bay. Developers built stairways so res- idents could get from the upper part of Piedmont to the lower parts of town and to have access the Key System trains. The stair- ways were part of the selling point for attracting buyers to the neighborhoods.

Priscilla identified the Van Sicklen stairway in Oakland’s Crocker Highlands neighborhood near the Piedmont border as an opportunity to observe how some boundary lines were drawn and how the changes were reflected by the street, signage and homes in the area.

Piedmont is unique in being perhaps the only city that is completely surrounded by another city. It has been referred to at times as Oakland’s “donut hole.” The borders of the town make no logical sense, as they do not appear to follow streets or physical landmarks. Boundary lines between the two cities sometimes cut through the middle of peoples’ homes, yards or businesses. In total there are 136 parcels that are partly in both Piedmont and Oakland.

Some walkers were aware that in 1907 the town’s founding fathers had been in race to incorporate Piedmont as a separate city before Oakland could annex the area. In this rush, they used the only map they had for defining the boundaries – a sewer map that showed sewer lines snaking underneath the houses of Pied- mont. The sewer map was not a good choice for setting jurisdictional boundaries, but once the boundaries were set, they could not be changed.

The walkers set off on Highland Avenue to Sheridan, then to Wildwood and through the Hall Fenway to Crocker and Hampton Avenues. From Hampton, the group turned onto Indian Road. At the 200 block of Indian Road, the walkers noticed one of Pied- mont’s Welcome to Piedmont signs facing in the opposite direction, The walkers knew that the sign meant that the walkers were now leaving Piedmont and enter- ing Oakland.

The walkers believed they might be on Sunnyhills Road, but that sign did not appear until the end of the block at the intersection with Downey Place. Walkers who lived in the Crocker Highlands neighborhood explained that Indian Road changed to Sunnyhills Road and that street names can change at places other than at an intersection.

Continuing on Sunnyhills, they found Van Sicklen Place, a cul-de-sac where the first set of stairways descends to another cul-de-sac, Bowles Place. From there a steeper, longer stairway goes to Trestle Glen Road.

The walkers continued down Sunnyhills Road, past Crocker Highlands Elementary School on Midcrest Road, to Longridge, Clarendon Crescent, and then to the Ashmount Farmer’s Market that operates out of a garage. The walkers had visited the market a few years ago and some members have since become regular customers. During the pandemic the market provided an alternative place to shop for those not comfortable with visiting large stores.

The walkers also enjoyed see- ing other homes near the market. Across from the market is a residence designed by the noted architect Bernard Maybeck. Next to the Maybeck house is a beautiful succulent garden that drew the attention of the walkers.

All this exploration had made for an informative and enjoyable walk, but a little longer than usual for the group. They retraced their steps and made their way back to the Exedra. It had been about two hours and four miles of good exercise and time with Walking on Wednesdays friends.


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