Take the Stairs!

Renovated Stairwell Shows Off the Capital of Public Health

September 27, 2013

Who knew taking the stairs could be so edifying?

Over the summer, the main stairway in the Allan Rosenfield building was remodeled to put stair-goers on a path of public health progress in New York City with bite-sized history lessons that stimulate the mind, encourage physical activity and, in a modest way, reduce the Mailman School’s carbon footprint.

Seventy-one historical vignettes and accompanying maps provide ample evidence that the School’s home city is, as Dean Linda P. Fried puts it, “the public health capital of the world.” Together they tell the story of advances in population health beginning with the founding of Bellevue Hospital Center in 1736 (7th Floor) all the way to the present day with the Hudson River Greenway (15th Floor) and other improvements carried out during the Bloomberg years.

Historical vignettes tell the story of public health progress in New York City

The vignettes focus on Manhattan, with displays arranged south to north, beginning with the World Trade Center Site on the 4th Floor up to the Inwood House of Mercy on the 16th Floor. Appropriately, the Mailman School itself is on the map (the School’s history can be found on the 14th Floor), as are several public health efforts that faculty have been involved with. One floor down, visitors can read up on the advocacy group WE ACT, a community partner of the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health that successfully lobbied to reduce diesel emissions at the Mother Clara Hale Bus Depot on 146th Street and elsewhere. Nearby, one can learn about HealthHarlem.org, a community website maintained by the Mailman-affiliated Harlem Health Promotion Center.

“What I really like about the installation is that it invites you to explore the length of the stairwell with a story that continues from one level to the next,” says Gina Lovasi, PhD, assistant professor of Epidemiology. “I think it’s something that people will enjoy as visitors to New York. And people who are here every day will find new aspects of it to delve into and have conversations about.”

The stairwell improvements also represent a bonafide public health intervention. In fact, the project is in synch with an initiative by Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced in July to promote taking the stairs citywide. “There is definitely promise in the idea of making it more fun to take the stairs, the idea of inviting people in to these spaces that aren’t always as welcoming,” notes Dr. Lovasi, and an expert in the built and social environments.

Data on stair usage is forthcoming, but until then there is anecdotal evidence that the plan is a success. Zach Peters, MPH 2014, a student in the Health Promotions Certificate in Sociomedical Sciences and longtime stair-climber, says that it was often hard to convince people to skip the elevator. No longer. Says Peters, “I am in awe at how many more people are taking the stairs.”

Stepwise Process

Soyoung Hwang (MPH ‘13) poses by one of the mini-histories she wrote

Nearly two years ago, Dean Fried took her vision for the stairs to Anthony Pramberger, Vice Dean of Finance and Administration, and Andrea Carey-Lebron, director of operations management. The Mailman School’s Strategic Communications team interviewed several faculty, who generated concepts including for “wall of facts.” Marita Murrman, ED, associate professor of Sociomedical Sciences, and her health promotion students also brainstormed ideas. Last fall, Manhattan-based firm Russell Design presented the final concept, which combined two ideas—a history of public health and a map of Manhattan that highlights its parks and transportation options.

Over the course of a month, Soyoung Hwang, MPH 2013, a student at the time in the History and Ethics track, researched and wrote the bulk of the vignettes in consultation with James Colgrove, PhD, associate professor of Sociomedical Sciences.  “I drew a lot of material from the topics we covered in Professor Colgrove’s fantastic class, the Social History of American Public Health,” says Hwang.  “We covered everything from swill milk stables to Typhoid Mary and the transition across different theories of disease within their social contexts, starting from miasma theory up to modern germ theory. The classes and philosophies of James Colgrove, Ron Bayer, and Amy Fairchild were all highly influential in shaping this effort.”

In September the final piece of the project was completed as the stairs were fitted with a blue rubberized grip and glow-in-the-dark tape. The result improves the overall aesthetic, and more importantly, helps to prevent injuries. Another public health intervention at work!

Take the Stairs Crossword Challenge

Test your knowledge of New York City public health history by completing the following crossword puzzle. Answers can be found in the stairwell.


1. This Washington Heights resident and author of The Cancer Journals, described herself as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” (5, 5)

4. This Northern Manhattan-based advocacy organization successfully pressured the Metropolitan Transit Organization to convert its diesel-burning buses to cleaner alternatives. (5)

6. A movement to improve the purity of this nutritious liquid organized in the early decades of the 20th Century. (4)

8. In 1929, NYC snow removal trucks were deployed as “healthmobiles” to educate the public and provide a toxin-antitoxin for this disease. (10)

9. Killed 146 workers at the Asch Building in 1911. (4)

12. Opened in 1882, this Harlem hospital was shuttered by Major Edward I. Koch in 1979 despite protest by the community. (8)

14. A 1916 epidemic of this disease made surveillance a public affair as a means of communal protection. (5)

15. In the 1920s and 1930s, The Majestic on West 75th Street was this type of illegal business, which likely contributed to the spread of venereal disease. (7)

16. The country’s first motor vehicle fatality was recorded in 1899. The victim, Henry H. Bliss, was struck by this kind of vehicle-for-hire. (4)


1. In 1922, Dr. John Davin launched a Congressional campaign to defend physicians’ rights to prescribe this. (7)

2. In 2001, Manhattan Borough President C. Virigina Fields funded a safe house in Washington Heights for children and families poisoned by this heavy metal. (4)

3. This Civil War veteran and sanitary engineer wrote the “Sanitary and Topographical Map of the City and Island of New York.” (5)

5. Mary Mallon is better known for this nickname, which describes the disease she carried. (7,4)

7. Launched by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2007, this visionary agenda enlisted 25 city agencies in a wide-ranging series of initiatives to prepare New York City for the future. (6)

10. The Croton Receiving Reservoir in Central Park provided New York City with its first dependable clean water supply and seemed to represent the city’s solution to this disease. (7)

11. Neighborhood of Wien House, the first HUD-funded housing property in New York to voluntarily adopt a 100% smoke-free policy to protect the health of the building’s residents and visitors. (6)

13. Members of this activist group disrupted a 1987 broadcast of CBS Evening News to protest the government’s emphasis on the Gulf War over the AIDS epidemic. (3,2)