Benjamin Lefkowitz never got to ride through the seasonal undercrossing that has borne his name for more than three decades. ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, robbed him of his ability to cycle in the late 1980s, and he was in a wheelchair by the January 1990 ceremony inaugurating the project, which connects the east and west sides of U.S. Highway 101.
A friend of Ellen Fletcher, the city's undisputed bicycling champion, Lefkowitz was an avid cyclist, regularly commuting by bike from his home on Greer Road to his jobs at IBM, SRI and Allstate Insurance, said his son, Matthew Lefkowitz. He also loved the Baylands, leading bike rides along the marshy network of trails and levees as a longtime member and former president of Western Wheelers, a bicycling group.
In the 1980s, when Alan Wachtel joined the group, the Lefkowitz underpass didn't exist. Benjamin Lefkowitz and other riders had to get creative, whether it meant walking over sandbags with bikes balanced on their shoulders on the way to the Baylands or crawling through a culvert in Alviso on the way to Mountain View, Wachtel recalled.
Lefkowitz's bike network was filled with "unofficial underpasses and unmarked paths," said Wachtel, a longtime member of the Palo Alto Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee.
A Brooklyn native who moved to Palo Alto in 1958, Lefkowitz introduced Wachtel and hundreds of others to many of the trails in and around the Baylands, though his trips stretched well beyond Palo Alto's city line. Wachtel recalled rides that Lefkowitz led to Water Dog Lake in Belmont and along Alpine Road or Skyline Boulevard. He recalled the tour of murals in downtown Palo Alto and the Fourth of July trips along Montebello Road to Ridge Vineyards in Cupertino.
"In fact, it's difficult for me to bicycle anywhere without thinking of a ride that he led or a place that I first visited on one of his rides," Wachtel said.
Benjamin's wife, Rosalie Lefkowitz, recalled in an interview her husband's passion for bicycling. After lobbying the city to build a bike overpass at Oregon Expressway, Lefkowitz led the charge to convince the City Council to build another access point to the Baylands farther south. But by the time the underpass was completed in 1989, his riding days were behind him. He was diagnosed with ALS in 1987. Photos of the inauguration ceremony show him smiling in his Western Wheelers hat as he is being recognized by former council members Larry Klein and Leland Levy near the undercrossing.
"He got to see it and roll across it," his son said.
Benjamin died in April 1990, according to a Western Wheelers newsletter from that year. The bicycling club, where he served as president from 1976 to 1977, described him as a "pioneer in bicycle commuting." Ellen Fletcher, a former council member whose name graces the city's first bike boulevard and a middle school, called him an "accomplished rider" in the newsletter, though noted that he was "always patient with even the slowest riders."
His passion for bicycling continued well beyond his pedaling days. One year before his death, he established a trust fund in which the annual interest went to a person who makes significant contributions to bicycling in Palo Alto. Fletcher was the first recipient of the award.
Now, the undercrossing is in its final days. Palo Alto is nearing completion of its new bike bridge at Adobe Creek, a $24 million span that is tentatively set to open to the public in October. Unlike the undercrossing, which is only open between April and October, the bridge would provide riders with year-round access to the Baylands. But while the bike bridge is an immensely popular project with local bikers — and one that Benjamin Lefkowitz would have surely applauded — those who knew him hope that the improvement will not inadvertently obscure his place in Palo Alto's history.
Western Wheelers, which Lefkowitz joined in 1972, submitted a letter in July asking the City Council to keep the Lefkowitz name on the new bridge. Benjamin Lefkowitz got around by bike at a time when "bicycling was an unusual form of transportation for adults," the letter states.
"As Ben once said, 'I bicycle because it's a healthy, economical way to get around, and it's ecologically sound. It gives me a sense of freedom and motion I have found in no other activity.'
This perspective has since found widespread acceptance in Palo Alto and forms an essential part of the City's identity," the Western Wheelers letter states.
Even as far back as 1980, Lefkowitz predicted the growth of biking in Palo Alto.
"I've seen many changes since I started pedaling," Lefkowitz said in the Western Wheelers profile. "Twenty years ago, people pointed at businessmen who rode bicyclists. They thought we were, well, peculiar. After all, why would anybody choose to get around on a child's toy when he could drive a car. I remember a presentation to the Palo Alto City Council in support of the Oregon Avenue overpass (we won!), where Council members treated us as quacks."
In a July letter, Matthew Lefkowitz urged the city not to let his father's legacy become a footnote in history.
"For us Lefkowitzs and our other family and friends, the Benjamin Lefkowitz Under crossing is the most important memorial that we have to my father, more important than his grave site in Colma," he wrote. "I hope something good can be done to keep his name attached to the site when the new project opens to the public."
At the moment, it does not look like the new overpass will be formally known as the Lefkowitz Bridge. Naming a city facility after an individual involves an extensive process that includes reviews by relevant city commissions, a recommendation from the Palo Alto Historical Association and a vote by the City Council.
Public Works Director Brad Eggleston said Wednesday that the city is not planning to go through that formal process. Instead, he said in an email, city staff are working with Matthew Lefkowitz to come up with other ways to recognize his father, whether through a placard or interpretive signage that will recognize Benjamin Lefkowitz's contributions to bicycling in Palo Alto. This will include his advocacy for the undercrossing and "how it eventually led to the bike bridge project," Eggleston said.
While Wachtel said he would like to see the new bridge bear his friend's name, Matthew Lefkowitz suggested that while having the bridge retain the Benjamin Lefkowitz name would be nice, a sign could be a sufficient tribute. His father, he noted, was a modest man who would never insist on recognition. The family's main goal, he added, is to make sure that his father's legacy isn't completely erased.
"I was just afraid that they were going to forget," Matthew Lefkowitz said. "When the plans were published four or five years ago, I was afraid that they would forget who Lefkowitz was and the name would disappear. Well, it looks like that's not going to happen. There's going to be something there, though what they will have is still an open question."