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Valencia Park’s rediscovered ‘secret stairs’ bring both heritage and hope

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.

Cristina Kim
The artists painting Valencia Park's secret stairs, Jan. 13, 2022. From left to right: Herbert Delong, Shannon White, Isabel Garcia and Shirish Villasenor.

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.

Cristina Kim
Isabel Garcia paints a poppy on Valencia Park's secret stairs, Jan. 13, 2022.

“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.

Cristina Kim
One of the flowers that was recently painted on the pathway to the stairs, Jan. 13, 2022.

“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.

Valencia Park’s rediscovered ‘secret stairs’ bring both heritage and hope