As a summery breeze swept through the canopy of trees that cover Sea Cliff’s coastline, resident Leslie Guerci set off on her morning walk — a two-mile loop on the village’s secret walkways. Along the way, she traversed stone steps and wooden planks, concealed side streets and nearly hidden, leaf-laden trails, while observing the village’s natural beauty.
On her route, she descended Bathway Steps, near her Prospect Avenue home. They lead down to the Sea Cliff Beach Pavilion. She followed the boardwalk around the hairpin turn at Cliff Way until its end at the base of Tilley Steps. After a two-story climb, which offers a view of Hempstead Harbor, she hiked uphill toward Pinnacle Steps. From there she wound through the wooded sanctuary of 18 Trails to Veterans Memorial Park. Then she followed Summit Avenue near Ravine Path — a public space that will soon be restored — to the Central Avenue Steps that connect 7th and 8th Avenues and eventually lead her home again.
This daily ritual is part of Guerci’s years-long research to develop a map of Sea Cliff’s public paths, parks and stairwells, which date back to the 1870s. Guerci, the president of the Sea Cliff Landmarks Association, said the map will be the first of its kind, and when it’s completed, it will be mailed to every village resident.
Predating cars, the walkways connected homes at the top of the hill to the beach and waterfront below. In the 1870s, the Metropolitan Campground Association of the Methodist Church bought much of what is now considered Sea Cliff and converted the land into communal campgrounds for its members. Most of these public spaces are concentrated in the area that the campground association had established.
“A lot of people who live in Sea Cliff don’t even know these walkways exist,” Guerci said. “And they weren’t ever marked. They were just there.”
Last year, Landmarks ordered stone pillars engraved with the names of several walkways, to be placed at the beginning and end of each path, and engravings were recently completed on sidewalks at some of the stairwells.
Landmarks has partnered with the Department of Public Works to maintain the infrastructure and restore it as needed. “It’s the vision of the village to not only restore these hidden pathways, but make [Sea Cliff a] more pedestrian-friendly community,” Village Administrator Bruce Kennedy said. “Many of them actually make traveling through the village much shorter than following sidewalks along roadways, and certainly more beautiful.”
Guerci’s research revealed that the public spaces need a great deal of maintenance, with some having to be restored every 20 years. In 1997, under then Mayor Ted Blackburn, the village restored the Bathway Steps to resemble what Guerci lovingly described as “a walking park.” Each of the landings has a bench for visitors to sit on and admire the lush plantings on either side of the stairwell; they are maintained jointly by the DPW and the Sea Cliff Beautification Committee.
Former Village Trustee Robin Maynard has helped raise funds for the restoration of the walkways “out of the goodness of my heart,” she said. “Some of the stairwells aren’t even open because they’re dangerous or have to be re-engineered. The hard-scaping costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to restore, and the maintenance is expensive as well.”
This summer, the village plans to install a walkway at Ravine Path on Summit Avenue, the former site of the Fairview Avenue Steps. Kennedy said the site is in “dilapidated condition.” The redesign will feature a meandering path with wooden steps and gravel inlays built around the base of the trees, giving it a more “pastoral” appearance, Guerci said. The village will soon put the project up for bids, and it should be completed by summer’s end, Kennedy said.
To prepare the map, Guerci scoured the pages of the long-defunct Sea Cliff Journal, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and The New York Times, and referenced local historians and old photographs to gather as much information as possible. “Many people before me have worked on the restoration of the stairs in Sea Cliff,” she said. “Every generation, somebody has picked up the ball.”
In her research, Guerci discovered many factoids about the village. The design of Elm Park, also known as Spooky Park, is often attributed to famed forester J.J. Levinson, a past Sea Cliff resident who designed Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. While Levinson deserves credit for creating the park that residents enjoy today, Guerci said, some of its features — the distinct sloping hill and U-shaped maze — were dreamt up by children who were members of Sea Cliff’s junior garden club in the 1930s.
The Fairview Avenue Steps ran alongside the former Cliff Manor Hotel down to Fairview Place, where Sea Cliff’s first mayor, Frederick W. Geissenhainer, lived. The map also depicts two rows of sycamores on opposite ends of the village. Guerci explained that the trees — also planned by Levinson — were planted on what is now Prospect Avenue, along the Hempstead Harbor waterfront, on the west side of the village. But Levinson had leftover trees, and planted the remaining sycamores in a line on what is now Cromwell Place, on the east side of the village.
“I thought that was fascinating,” Guerci said.
Kennedy said the map would allow residents to better understand Sea Cliff’s heritage and appreciate how things worked in a simpler time. “With the advent of cars, a lot of the walkways have been forgotten about,” he said. “As a result of this, we’ve had an increase in visitors that simply want to walk around the village.”
Even after the map has been mailed out, Landmarks will continue work to restore the public pathways to their former glory. Guerci said that the 18th Avenue Steps, also known as the Bay Avenue Steps, have been closed since the hill was destabilized in a mudslide. Stabilizing the site will take a great deal of time and money, she said, but she envisions the finished product having a concrete slide or a natural playground for children to enjoy.
“Public walkways are one of the very special things about Sea Cliff,” Guerci said. “You have a walking route throughout the entire village on historic paths that were used before automobiles were invented. It’s a lovely way to get a sense of how people got around.”