Last November, as previously detailed, we searched San Francisco’s less-photogenic neighborhoods for under-appreciated inclines, rewrote the City’s “official” list of steepest streets, and discovered Prentiss Street, which, at a maximum grade of 37%, matches Pittsburgh’s Canton Avenue as the most-tilted urban thoroughfare in the world.
Afterwards, I boarded the couch for a well-deserved weekend in pro sports vacationland. All the while, loose ends whispered in the wind, open leads nagged, and unexplored territory begged for attention. With a tap of the volume button, I could drown them out, but…
Did George Washington dip his finger into the Delaware and whine “maybe I’ll come back when it’s warmer?” Did, daily at noon, Rosie the Riveter betray her trusty gun for the factory masseuse? Did Pee-wee shirk his Big Adventure under the duress of potato chips and beer?
Hell no! Like them, my moral marching orders were to press onward, and thus compelled, with much pressure, onward with the Steepest Search did I proceed…
At the dawn of the Gold Rush, San Franciscans bore witness to an infamous boxing match, wherein Haste, cheered by 50,000 rabid forty-niners, knocked out Foresight in the first round.
Foresight’s defeat scuttled grand plans of swooping avenues and Parisian boulevards. Seemingly overnight, Haste’s rudimentary rectangular street grid clung to the hillsides like an early autumn snow, peppered with a motley assortment of taverns, storefronts, pleasure dens, and flophouses:
Mother Nature has long since folded, spindled, and mutilated those first buildings, but the streets survive. Today, they leap and dive the same crazy ups and downs as they first did, 160 years ago, in the neighborhood known as…
North Beach! Perhaps you’ve come to sample a bowl of cioppino, get your Beat on at Vesuvio, do some Barbary Coast-style carousing along Broadway, or simply wander the streets in search of companionship and adventure. Whatever your poison, it’s gonna be fun!
But first, you gotta park. You’ve already climbed Telegraph Hill three times over, tracing and retracing every goddamned back street and alleyway within half a mile, and still nothing. Fiddlesticks! Then, on your fifteenth pass down Vallejo, you notice a narrow gap in the apartments to the left, marked by an inconspicuous sign as Romolo Place.
Maybe there’s a parking space down there?
As you approach, Romolo itself hides behind a lip of pavement. It must be a bit of a slope, so you shed some speed and begin the turn. Then, that mysterious red light under the odometer – you always wondered what it was for – starts to blink. Split-seconds later, a panicked siren squawks: ah-rooga, ah-rooga, ah-rooga! What’s going on? Suddenly…
The pavement drops out of view and you’re staring into space then oh no! the car lurches down and then right and you stomp the brakes and the tires squeal and it’s gonna roll and holy shit! you’re almost on the stairs and into the building on the right and then the left and the proximity sensor bings as the pavement flies up at you and scraaaaaape… Romolo gives your car a love peck as it screeches to rest at the bottom.
Did that really just happen?! A glance in the rear-view explains everything…
Romolo pitches precipitously, at a 32.5% grade along the centerline, but also a terrifying twenty inches downward, sideways, from left-to-right, over its twelve foot width. Together, these tilts send a spicy North Beach meatball skittering down the fall line at a sauce-splattering 40%!
Under the influence of Romolo’s sinfully improper grade, our on-site survey team began to speak in tongues. Drawn by the commotion, a roving band of drunkards joined the chorus, and guided by their strangely-therapeutic ramblings, the gibberish slowly yielded to Consensus. In Romolo’s close quarters, your car would never be far enough askew to feel the full 40%, but as entering from Vallejo, you’d briefly pitch downwards close to it: somewhere between 37 and 38%.
We split the difference – 37.5% – and christened Romolo as the Super Steep Street Most Likely To Inflict Coffee Crotch On Early Morning Delivery Truck Drivers.
“Crotch,” my team giggled, over and over again. My, were they – randy? I handed them a roll of dollar bills wrapped in a twenty, gestured downhill towards Big Daddy’s, and made myself scarce.
When the esteemed Sir Poskanzer recommends that you do something, you do it, lest an unfortunate online “accident” cut you down a few months later. So, there I was, per his “suggestion” at the base of Bernal Heights, measuring Bronte Street’s quite-respectable 29%. Thanks Jef!
Next door, Bronte’s less-sophisticated neighbor, Bradford Street, climbs eagerly from Tompkins Avenue at twenty-percent grade. Then, after 150 feet, the slope doubles, and the concrete poops out. “Anyone wanna take over?!” it yells.
“I does!” hollers the insane asphalt driveway. And lickety split, there’s a perilous, oil-stained jump to the private property above: not “country club” private, mind you, but the other kind, wherein the gap-toothed inhabitants take mighty unkindly to camera-waving interlopers.
I’d seen the driveway before – at the tail end of the previous episode – and clearly, it required investigation. However, it also had me spooked, so I played the oops-out-of-time card and returned home to a pleasant dinner.
On this visit, I had no such excuse…
Before the Journalists Club would dispense my credentials, they made me swear on the Holy Notepad that I would always Do Whatever Whatever It Takes To Get The Story. Up there might be the World’s Most Extreme Driveway, and I must document it for the benefit of you, my Loyal Reader, no matter what the danger.
To buy myself a precious few seconds of extra escape time, I cooked up a crude verbal diversion:
Hey look, Hatfields!
Then, with a deep breath, I exited the vehicle and began what might be my final few steps uphill. Ever. Gulp.
Hey, something looked different. Where was the asphalt? What were those orange cones and construction barricades doing there? And why was it all so much whiter than before?
OMFG, the “driveway” was actually part of Bradford Street, and it’d been repaved!
Lately, Public Works must be mainlining their Wheaties, because, as part of the same Bernal Heights Street Improvement Project that yielded Prentiss, they had replaced the ugly asphalt ramp with a tilted concrete slab, and a very special one at that:
Carefully, I scaled the beast and measured it: a solid 30 feet of sustained 41% grade. On such a slope, gravity alone pulls a one-ton car downhill with 800 pounds of force, accelerating it from zero to sixty in 7.2 seconds. Whoa Nellie!
Congratulations, Bradford Street above Tompkins, for, having Bravely Thrust into the Forty-Percent-Plus Frontier, you now stand alone atop the Peak Of Maximum Grades as the Most Tilted Paved Urban Thoroughfare In The World!
All drivers of cars with golden tires, please travel to Bradford and apply commemorative golden skid marks, forthwith!
A New List
Now, our list of Steepest Streets needs an overhaul. Shoot the confetti, release the balloons, and spotlights center stage in five, four, three, two, one…
1. Bradford above Tompkins (41% grade)
2. Romolo between Vallejo and Fresno (37.5% grade)
3. Prentiss between Chapman and Powhattan (37% grade)
4. Nevada above Chapman (35% grade)
5. Baden above Mangels (34% grade) *
6. Ripley between Peralta and Alabama (31.5% grade)
7. 24th between De Haro and Rhode Island (31.5% grade)
8. Filbert between Hyde and Leavenworth (31.5% grade)
9. 22nd between Vicksburg and Church (31.5% grade)
10. Broadway above Taylor (31% grade)
11. 23rd above Carolina (31% grade)
Notes: Ranked by maximum grade, as of February 2010.
Ties are broken by the length of maximum slope.
* Crude, single lane pseudo-street
With that, we shift the Steepest Search into Maintenance Gear, wherein we’ll monitor Bernal for further developments and field other leads as they pop up. If you see anything interesting, don’t hesitate to ring our tip line, please!