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‘Secret stairs’ get a floral face-lift, another step toward spiffing up southeastern San Diego

Nestled in the neighborhood of Valencia Park in southeastern San Diego lies a hidden staircase that for years had fallen into disrepair.

The 75-steps bisecting a small portion of the community connects Las Alturas Terrace to Churchward Street. But with overgrown weeds and accumulating trash, the staircase had become a magnet for graffiti and drug use, some residents said.

In recent days, though, the stairs have brought smiles to residents’ faces.

Big, colorful poppies are painted along the steps, and a wall mural runs along its entirety, welcoming visitors to what has become known as the “secret stairs.” A local nonprofit, some volunteers and artists have given Valencia Park’s secret stairs a face-lift.

Now with the trash collected and the weeds pulled, the newly cleaned and bright stairs are once again linking two parts of the neighborhood together and reminding people of community connections.

“I’ve never seen such a big and beautiful mural,” said 32-year-old Elizabeth Dunn. “I’ve lived in Valencia Park since I was a little girl and used to use the stairs almost every day to get to my friend’s house, but I haven’t been able to let my kids use them — until now.”

“I finally feel like they can grow up in the neighborhood as I remember it,” she added.

Shirish Villasenor sits next to one of her public artworks along the path of the “secret stairs” of Valencia Park off Trinidad Way.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Barry Pollard, CEO of the Urban Collaborative Project, an outreach program that uses volunteers to address disparities within the community, recalls using the stairs as a shortcut when he attended Morse High.

“I would meet my friends here, and we would walk together,” he said. “And then I grew up, and I forgot about all this.”

That is until he and other local groups began trying to revitalize the Valencia Park neighborhood.

In late 2020, Valencia Park neighbors revived an inactive community council and began working with local groups like the Urban Collaborative to launch beautification projects and neighborhood cleanups.

“We were just trying to rejuvenate some life into the community,” said Rob Iuliucci, who was leader of the council at the time.

Along with weekly cleanup efforts, the group worked to get a dozen “Little Free Library” book-sharing boxes across the neighborhood and facilitated other mural projects, including a “Welcome to Valencia Park” sign on Logan Avenue.

While the community of Valencia Park — bordered by Encanto, Emerald Hills and Lincoln Park — has businesses scattered throughout, it is mostly a residential neighborhood, which is why the council also partnered with other local organizations, including the Urban Collaborative, to host a pop-up coffee shop event in December 2020 at the “Four Corners,” what locals call the main intersection of Euclid and Imperial avenues, that was attended by dozens of residents.

“It’s such a welcoming community, but we don’t really have shops to go to,” Iuliucci said. “We saw some old-timers come and some new faces, so it was really cool seeing the integration of the whole entire community come out for that.”

Though the council stopped meeting last year because of time constraints, revitalization efforts have continued with the Urban Collaborative at the helm.

“It makes me smile, just seeing the little things … to breathe a little life into the community — the energy’s different,” Iuliucci said of the neighborhood projects that have been completed.

Shirish Villasenor, Isabel Garcia, Herbert Delong and Shannon White stand on the Secret Stairs of Valencia Park

Shirish Villasenor, Isabel Garcia, Herbert Delong and Shannon White stand on the Secret Stairs of Valencia Park

(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Among the various cleanup projects were efforts to restore the secret stairs. Dozens of volunteers began with the cleanup last year, but with a $15,000 donation from Blue Shield of California, they were able to take the staircase renovation to the next level.

That’s when artists Shirish Villaseñor, Isabel Garcia, Shannon White and Herbert DeLong came in, painting vibrant California poppies scattered along the stairs, an homage to the local wildflowers that used to grow where the neighborhood now lies.

While Garcia, White and DeLong had all grown up in the area, none had ever been to the stairs before the poppy project — and White didn’t even know the stairs were there.

“I’ve driven right past them a bunch of times,” White said. “I loved the whole idea of it being something for the community and people to enjoy.”

The mural took about 100 hours per artist to complete over the course of a couple of months.

“The neighbors would come out and talk to us while we worked,” Garcia said.

For the artists, the community’s overwhelmingly positive response makes their efforts worthwhile, they all agreed.

“The best part was seeing a little kid walk by and tell his brother, ‘Look at all the colors! It doesn’t look scary anymore,’” Villaseñor added.

DeLong recalls a little girl who took a particular liking to a turquoise flower he’d painted.

 Shannon White next to one of her pieces of artwork along the path of the "secret stairs" of Valencia Park off Trinidad Way.

Shannon White next to one of her pieces of artwork along the path of the “secret stairs” of Valencia Park off Trinidad Way.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“She lived next to it, and she had walked the whole thing and said, ‘I love this,’” he said.

White says she’s even had residents from outside the neighborhood tell her they have visited the stairs to see the new mural.

“There’s an excitement,” she said. “It’s a nice feeling, almost like we left our stamp on the community … I hope this has a lasting impression.”

“There’s a lot of people that actually come to search for it, so I’m excited,” Villaseñor added.

Valencia Park resident Lakimya Velvet Jones says her parents passed on to her their home adjacent to the stairs, and she says it has never looked better.

“I use them all the time now,” she said.

Yoni Campbell and his German shepherd now include the staircase in their daily walks.

“It’s a great workout for us — and now it’s beautiful, too,” he said. “It’s really brightened up the neighborhood.”

Residents agree the staircase has become a landmark that they are proud to showcase.

“This (mural) has been here for a couple of months and there have been no (graffiti) tags,” Pollard said.

Herbert Delong sat next to one of his public artworks along the path of the Secret Stairs of Valencia Park off Trinidad Way.

Herbert DeLong with his artwork along the path of the “secret stairs” of Valencia Park off Trinidad Way.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Since the cleanup, the Urban Collaborative has hired landscapers for the monthly upkeep of the stairs, but Pollard is still looking for donations to address such remaining issues as the drainage problem that causes the lower part of the staircase to flood. Pollard also is working with SDG&E to install dusk-to-dawn solar lights to make the staircase usable at night.



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