Valencia Park’s rediscovered ‘secret stairs’ bring both heritage and hope
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Tucked away in Southeast San Diego is a hidden stairway that for years has been neglected, but as KPBS, race and equity reporter, Christina Kim reports, the hidden gem is being revitalized for and by the community.
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If you dunno, what you're looking for, chances are you might just walk by Valencia parks, secrets stairs. It
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Gets the heart pump.
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And I'm telling you the more than 150 stairs connect less as Buddhist terrace, which overlooks the San Diego skyline across Trinidad way, all the way to church ward street in the Southeast San Diego neighborhood, how the stairs came to be, and their purpose are a bit of a mystery to local residents. They've been a part of Barry polar since he was a kid.
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I personally remember using stairs, walking from my home to Morris high school. And that was back in the seventies. Over the
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Years, the stairs fell into disrepair with overgrown vegetation and areas that tend to flood after heavy rainfall
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Around the nineties, eighties, you know, they're cutting in some of the surf because of the budget for the city and maybe some drain stuff needs to occur. So there are some structural issues that we're we're working through.
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That is until last year when Valencia park residents with help from council member, Monica, Montgomery steps office started to clean up the stairs now thanks in part to a $50,000 donation from blue shield, the stairs are getting a makeover. The effort is spearheaded by polars organization. The urban collaboration project lights are going to be put in. And four local artists are beautifying the secret stairs with a mural of flowers, the goal to make it more inviting and change receptions of the neighborhood.
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I've heard stories of people calling this, uh, the hood or, uh, the ghetto and I've, I've lived here in this area all my life. And I never thought of it
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That way. Shannon white is one of the muralists. She believes art makes places more inviting for everyone. And more importantly, it makes people feel good about themselves and their neighborhood. There is
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A sense of pride that comes along with, uh, something like this. There's also a sense of ownership because this is, you know, if you live in this area, then you consider this yours. The
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Artist decided to cover the stairs with different color poppies because while no one is a hundred percent sure why these stairs were built, then native, California flowers are an homage to a local story that says a developer created them. So his wife could go collect wild flowers.
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I wasn't aware of like that story to begin with. And so when I learned about that, it kind of made it like a little bit more special.
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Isabel Garcia is another muralist working on the project. We wanted to
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Include something that actually important to like the area itself,
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The Valencia park neighborhood, like so much of San Diego is gentrifying at a rapid pace home prices here rose nearly 25% last year and are expected to continue rising. According to Zillow, that's not lost on Garcia who has witnessed many of the changes firsthand as a local artist. She says, she's very intentional about how her work intersects with these forces,
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For me to be involved in this and using like my art in that way. Like it's for the people that live here. And I want them to be able to feel, you know, included and know that like this is for them.
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So far, the response from neighbors has been overwhelmingly positive, says Charri yes, and yard. Another one of the artists, it brightens
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People's faces up. So what I've seen from here is like even seeing the people passing by seeing that any color is gonna be brought into that area really does brighten people's faces to know that some type of change is coming
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Abner who lives right next door to the steps says he's already seeing the positive change. I think it's
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Very much more inviting. Yeah. It's nice to see people walk
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Up and down. And that's exactly what the secret stairs makeover was intended to do. Invite people in the community to use this public space exercise and take pride in Valencia park.
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And that was reporting from KPBS race and equity reporter, Christina Kim.
If you don’t know what you are looking for, chances are you might just walk by Valencia Park’s secret stairs.
Hidden away amongst houses that overlook the San Diego skyline, the over 150-step staircase connects Las Alturas Terrace across Trinidad Way all the way to Churchward Street in the Southeast San Diego neighborhood.
How and why the stairs came to be remains a bit of a mystery to local residents, including Barry Pollard, CEO of Urban Collaboration Project. They’ve been a part of Pollard’s life since he was a kid.
“I personally remember using them to get from my home to Morse High School and that was back in the 1970s,” he said.
But as the years wore on the stairs fell into disrepair.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, overgrown vegetation blocked the pathway to the stairs and a poor drainage system often caused flooding in some sections. Those obstacles, plus a lack of light in the evening, kept residents from regularly using them.
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Then came the pandemic, the lockdowns and a rebirth of outdoor exercise. Valencia Park residents rediscovered the stairs and have embraced them – because they’re both a great workout and a quirky window into the neighborhood’s history.
A community effort
In 2020, Valencia Park residents and volunteers reinvigorated the Valencia Park Community Council, and with help from Councilmember Monica Montgomery Steppe’s office, started to clean up the stairs. They started by simply clearing debris so the staircase could be used again.
“One of the primary goals of my office has been to activate spaces in our communities that have previously been ignored,” said Councilmember Montgomery Steppe in a statement to KPBS. “We’ve done just that with this hidden treasure in Valencia Park.”
And now comes a more extensive makeover, thanks in part to a $15,000 donation from Blue Shield of California. The Urban Collaboration Project is leading the effort.
New lights are going to be put in so residents can use it for evening exercise; and four local San Diego artists are adding a splash of color aimed at both making the stairs more inviting and changing outsiders’ perceptions about Valencia Park.
“I’ve heard of this area called the hood or the ghetto and I lived in this area my whole life and I have never thought of it that way,” said Shannon White, one of the muralists.
White believes art makes places more inviting for everyone, and, more importantly, it makes people feel good about themselves and their neighborhood.
“There’s a sense of pride that comes along with something like this and there’s also a sense of ownership because if you live in this area you consider this yours,” she said.
The artists chose to decorate the stairwell with paintings of California poppies as an homage to local lore that says the stairs were created by a developer so his wife could go and collect her favorite wildflowers.
“When I learned that story it made it more special to me,” said Isabel Garcia, another muralist working on the project. “We wanted to include something that is actually important to the area itself.”
A response to gentrification
The Valencia Park neighborhood, like so much of San Diego, is rapidly gentrifying. Home prices rose nearly 25% last year and are expected to continue rising, according to Zillow.
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That’s not lost on Garcia, who has witnessed a lot of the changes firsthand. As a local artist she says she’s very intentional about how her work on public projects like these stairs intersects with these forces.
“I feel like for me to be involved in this and use my art in that way, it’s for the people that live here,” she said. “I want them to feel included and know it’s for them.”
The response by neighbors has been overwhelmingly positive, according to Shirish Villasenor, another one of the artists.
“It brightens people’s faces up to see the change,” Villasenor said. "Seeing that any color is being brought into that area really brightens people’s faces to know that some type of change is coming.”
Abner Soto Rodriguez, who lives right next door to the steps, welcomes the project.
“It’s nice to see people walk up and down left and right,” he said. “I think it’s much more inviting.”
Other neighbors wave at the muralists and stop by to chat every now and then to see how the stairs are progressing.
To Pollard, this shows how the project is already a positive for the community. He says having neighbors talk and engage with this forgotten part of the neighborhood is exactly what he envisioned.
“We want this community and all these communities to be proud of where they are, take care of the neighborhood and have pleasant places to walk and enjoy,” he said.