Temblors Add Quirky Touch to Visalia Steps

By DANIEL FREED Special to the Planet
Tuesday December 23, 2003

EDITOR’S NOTE: This one in a continuing series by UC Berkeley students on the paths of Berkeley. 


On a hot and dry Sunday afternoon, Dave Semple and his youngest son, Chris, smiled and joked as they made their way up Visalia Steps.  

The family’s black Lab, Casey, pulled Dave up the set of 90 concrete stairs that lies between houses in Thousand Oaks, their North Berkeley neighborhood. Chris carried two loaves of bread they had purchased at Semifreddi’s, down the hill in Kensington. It’s a Sunday tradition for them to walk down the steps, pick up the bread, walk back home and enjoy eating the loaves when they get there. 

“If it lasts,” Chris said as he tore off a handful of one seeded baguette. The father and son had stopped to enjoy the shade under a thick canopy of oak branches that grew in a tangle overhead.  

Nearly a century ago, developers of Thousand Oaks began crafting a hillside suburb that incorporated housing plots, roads and footpaths with the beauty of the area’s existing landscape.  

Since then, seismic forces have skewed a small section of the Visalia Steps at an angle that would make any funhouse designer envious. While the leaning concrete presents a slight challenge to walkers, it also illustrates the developers’ decision to craft a hillside neighborhood that was built in, and not just on, its natural surroundings.  

“Instead of defying nature, it was more like building with nature and trying to feature it and showcase it,” said Zelda Bronstein, president of the Thousand Oaks Neighborhood Association.  

The neighborhood’s builders set aside a right of way for the Visalia Steps, giving pedestrians a quick-but-steep way between Vincente Avenue and Menlo Place. Originally, Berkeley residents used hillside paths like this one to get to streetcars. Now, a handful of neighbors still use the walkway as part of a leisurely stroll or for a bit of exercise. 

The lack of foot traffic and the thick dark-green ivy that grows along the steps’ lower half make the path a perfect place for spiders and ants. Lines of these ants can sometimes be seen marching safely up and down 10 or 20 steps to flat sections of the path where they cross from one side of the concrete to the other.  

These ants, it seems, know that their chances of ending up as Visalia Steps roadkill are quite slim. By the numbers, the little creatures seem to get more use from the Visalia Steps than people like Dave and Chris do.