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Family hopes to preserve Lefkowitz legacy at site of new bike bridge

City considers ways to recognize Benjamin Lefkowitz, who worked with bicycling champion Ellen Fletcher

Bike enthusiast Benjamin Lefkowitz is shown in photos from the 1990 inauguration ceremony of the underpass connecting the east and west sides of U.S. Highway 101 that was named after him. Photo by Adam Pardee.

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.

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"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.

Rosalie Lefkowitz in her home in Palo Alto. She and her family are looking to have a new bike bridge named after her husband, Benjamin Lefkowitz, who had a passion for bicycling. Photo by Adam Pardee.

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.

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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.

A new bridge over U.S. Highway 101 in Palo Alto is expected to make its public debut in late October. Courtesy Marc Cohen.

"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.

Matthew Lefkowitz, left, speaks with his mother, Rosalie Lefkowitz, right, in her Palo Alto home. He's urging the city to find a way to honor his late father, Benjamin Lefkowitz, whose name currently bears a seasonal underpass set for closure later this year. Photo by Adam Pardee.

"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."

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Family hopes to preserve Lefkowitz legacy at site of new bike bridge

City considers ways to recognize Benjamin Lefkowitz, who worked with bicycling champion Ellen Fletcher

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Fri, Aug 13, 2021, 6:57 am

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."

Comments

felix
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 13, 2021 at 9:21 am
felix, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Aug 13, 2021 at 9:21 am

He sounds like a wonderful man, but maybe we’ve honored bike activists enough. We named Bryant St. Bike Blvd. after Ellen Fletcher (and a school for her, for biking and other aspects of her life).
If the bridge would be named, there are others to honor for other types of community contributions.
Just something to think about.


Jim Colton
Registered user
Green Acres
on Aug 13, 2021 at 11:02 am
Jim Colton, Green Acres
Registered user
on Aug 13, 2021 at 11:02 am

In addition to his vast reputation as a bicyclist, Ben was also an avid tennis player. I recall many a noon hour meeting Ben at the MA tennis courts for a tennis game followed by an interesting conversation. Since Ben was an expert in investments, I also got some free and reliable investment advice. Not many months go by when I don't recall some conversation with Ben that took place over 30 years ago.


lstovel
Registered user
University South
on Aug 13, 2021 at 11:12 am
lstovel, University South
Registered user
on Aug 13, 2021 at 11:12 am

As I waited patiently (or not so patiently) for the new bridge, I regretted that Benjamin Lefkowitz’s name would disappear along with the underpass, which I too used to get to work for many years. I am delighted to hear that his family does not want that to happen, and I wholeheartedly support adding a remembrance to the new bridge.


Bystander
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 13, 2021 at 1:12 pm
Bystander, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Aug 13, 2021 at 1:12 pm

The tunnel remains, it just won't be accessible to the public, only SCC Water Authority.


Fr0hickey
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Aug 13, 2021 at 2:01 pm
Fr0hickey, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Aug 13, 2021 at 2:01 pm

Call it "Bridge over Benjamin Lefkowitz Undercrossing"


Jan Buck
Registered user
another community
on Aug 13, 2021 at 3:03 pm
Jan Buck, another community
Registered user
on Aug 13, 2021 at 3:03 pm

It might be fitting to blow up the photo montage of Ben that sits on the sofa in your photo, Im curious as to what's in it......if so, thanks........


marahfab
Registered user
South of Midtown
on Aug 13, 2021 at 4:56 pm
marahfab, South of Midtown
Registered user
on Aug 13, 2021 at 4:56 pm

Last year I was there the last weekend the underpass was open, & spoke to several people about it there. Years ago I participated in a couple of Ben's delightful, imaginative bike rides. I wrote about all this in a short piece (under 1200 words).


StarSpring
Registered user
Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 13, 2021 at 4:58 pm
StarSpring, Adobe-Meadow
Registered user
on Aug 13, 2021 at 4:58 pm

"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"

Really? If this is true our city staff is too bloated. Name the bridge after Mr. Lefkowitz and be done with it. We are just replacing one freeway crossing mechanism with another one in the same place.


Consider Your Options.
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 13, 2021 at 4:59 pm
Consider Your Options. , Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Aug 13, 2021 at 4:59 pm

I love this idea. I never met Mr. Lefkowitz, but I am grateful to him every day for the safe, off-road connection to bay trail bike routes my husband has ridden for years between our Palo Alto home to his job in San Jose. Our whole family has used the tunnel to go for walks, birding, and biking in the baylands. We eagerly look forward to using the new bridge.

Yes. Please honor Mr. Lefkowitz by naming the bicycle/pedestrian bridge after him. After all, the bridge will replace his namesake tunnel. Without the tunnel, so many people who love to walk and bike would not have discovered our glorious bay trails. It was the tunnel that increased use and demand for a year round facility at that location.

City Council, let's please carry forward Mr. Lefkowitz' well-earned honor by naming the new bridge after him.--and maybe put up a plaque with some history this time. I don't think a lot of people realize how hard it is to get any kind of bike facility approved and built--no matter how much it is needed.


Native to the BAY
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Aug 13, 2021 at 5:39 pm
Native to the BAY, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Aug 13, 2021 at 5:39 pm

What a beautiful and simple quote” 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.' — Benjamin Lefkowitz.

It’s a no brainer to keep his legendary pedal pushing alive and well for all generations to enjoy and learn! Please name the bridge after him.


Bart Anderson
Registered user
Mayfield
on Aug 13, 2021 at 8:16 pm
Bart Anderson, Mayfield
Registered user
on Aug 13, 2021 at 8:16 pm

I'm grateful to Mr. Lefkowitz for his pioneering and advocacy. May we continue in his spirit!


cheese guy
Registered user
Palo Verde
on Aug 13, 2021 at 8:46 pm
cheese guy, Palo Verde
Registered user
on Aug 13, 2021 at 8:46 pm

I agree with Star Spring's comment above, the bridge should absolutely be named after this wonderful man. So, we have to go through a "Palo Alto Process" for this? Really? Just name the bridge after him and be done with it, one supsects the City Council could adopt a resolution to this end if they so wanted.


Ron Wolf
Registered user
Mountain View
on Aug 16, 2021 at 4:41 pm
Ron Wolf, Mountain View
Registered user
on Aug 16, 2021 at 4:41 pm

A good opportunity to mention that the Western Wheelers Bicycle Club remains quite active with over 1,000 members & rides for all abilities and interests. Perhaps the best way that one can honor Lefkowitz’s legacy is to ride a bike & ride it often.

Wonderful that Palo Alto is finally getting this bridge done. Over 20 years in the making.


Steve Dabrowski
Registered user
Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 17, 2021 at 11:54 am
Steve Dabrowski, Duveneck/St. Francis
Registered user
on Aug 17, 2021 at 11:54 am

The city really should name the bridge after him and drop all this nonsense about all the difficulties. If not, the people of Palo Alto and the local newspapers can just continue to refer the bridge as the Ben Lefkowitz bridge whenever discussing it. We don't need anyone's approval!


Bystander
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 17, 2021 at 7:36 pm
Bystander, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Aug 17, 2021 at 7:36 pm

Regardless of what it is named officially, it will be called the new bike bridge for a very long time.


Me 2
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Aug 18, 2021 at 12:13 pm
Me 2, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Aug 18, 2021 at 12:13 pm

Maintaining an honor for a white man? Come on. We're dropping the ball on virtue signaling.

We need a minority LGBTQ+ transgender female tricyclist instead!

(sarcasm)


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