From Eyesore to Attraction: Improving Step Streets in the Bronx

“My family has been in this area for over 75 years. I remember when these step streets were safe and looked good. Now, nobody would actually choose to take the steps, even if it would save them time. If you take those steps, you’re putting yourself in the presence of danger.”

This is what Richard, a longtime resident of the Bronx and a self-described community historian of the Concourse Village area, had to say when asked about the step streets in his neighborhood. “The structure is falling apart, literally. The stairs are broken and hollow, so if you aren’t watching where you’re walking, you’re a goner. And don’t even get me started on the rats that come out when it rains!”

Anybody who has visited the Bronx knows that it is a hilly borough. It was for this reason, in the early 1900s, that city planners decided to pepper these hills with sets of stairs that would help residents get from bottom to top without having to wind all the way around the hill on roads that were just being laid down.

Called “step streets,” these sets of stairs made a lot of sense, since the automobile was still a rare commodity and most people traveled on foot throughout their neighborhoods.

Unfortunately, what was originally intended to improve a Bronx resident’s daily commute has now become a daily risk. Many step streets have fallen into structural disrepair and community members consider them to be dirty and dangerous places that they choose to avoid rather than travel through.

At our summer Community Advisory Board meeting, step streets came up as an issue of concern and an area around which Bronx Community Solutions could do some creative problem solving. Since that meeting, we have taken a much closer look at step streets with the Bronx Borough President’s Office.

We chose Community District 4 as our starting point for this project, since it is a district that has reported particular difficulties with step streets and because of the number of them (about 15 in all) in the area. After taking photos of the sites and gathering some cursory information from residents, we decided to dig deeper into some of the issues we had heard about: safety, cleanliness, lighting, greenery, and crime.

Last Friday, the Red Hook Public Safety Corps (which was also hard at work at the Bronx Zoo) collected about 120 surveys from residents and people who work in the areas we had identified. As we suspected, there was an overwhelming desire among respondents for more police patrols along the step streets, improved lighting, regular maintenance, security cameras, and structural repairs.

Perhaps most interesting is that residents responded strongly to the fact that the step streets’ unclean physical appearance gives the impression of danger. Although respondents spoke at length about what they thought occurred in these areas (specifically at night), not many had personal anecdotes to offer.

This suggests that the physical disorder of the step streets may lead to the perception of disorder and danger, even if this is not entirely the case. In other words, a typical pedestrian may say to himself, “This route looks pretty bad, so it must be dangerous. I think I’ll take the long way home.”

As they say, perception is reality.

Another factor fueling negative perceptions of step streets is their isolation: a person walking up the middle of the stairs might be a good 40 or 50 feet from the street. Some of the steps also open into larger areas on the sides around the midpoint of the stairs, and since there are no mirrors, a passerby cannot see if someone is waiting in those areas.

What are our next steps?

Our Americorps fellows passed along a number of good suggestions from community members for improving the steps and we at Bronx Community Solutions also have a couple of ideas of our own.

First, we could participate in basic maintenance and repair by sending our community service crews to clean the step streets on a regular basis. In collaboration with the Bronx Borough President’s Office, we could also contact city agencies to make sure that busted light bulbs are replaced regularly, that necessary structural repairs are made, and that there is clear signage about who to call when repairs are needed. Where possible, it would be great to install security cameras and other technology and to discuss the possibility of more police patrols around the step streets.

How can we keep it attractive once these improvements have been made?

An “Adopt-A-Step-Street” program is one idea. Similar to the “adopt-a-highway” programs in many suburban areas, this program would bring community stakeholders together to take control of their step street. This group of lookouts would maintain the steps and collaborate with city agencies to make sure that necessary repairs are made.

Going beyond simply cleaning the step streets, the adopting groups would also help take ownership of addressing residents’ perceptions of danger by making the step streets destinations for community residents and local businesses. Perhaps these groups could host public events that allow residents to celebrate their communities or that provide the opportunity for interaction between local elected officials and their constituents. Concerts on the steps, health fairs, greening projects … anything is possible when willing people have the resources and support they need.