by Michael Cahn
Paul Leaf: Painting Bike Lanes on the Canvas of the Street in 1970’s Santa Monica
We found Paul Leaf because he raised his voice in a letter to the editor in the SMDP. He worries that people are not riding safely on their bikes. Track bikes on Main Street make him shake his head, cycling is not about fashion, it is about operating your vehicle safely. Sitting badly and uncomfortable is never a good start. Bike shops should offer bike fitting for every bike they sell, and cyclist should be educated to understand how important proper bike fitting is. Ted Ernst from Manhattan Beach, he was very focused on fit, and he speaks German.
Paul came to Santa Monica in about 1975. He came from New York, where he discovered Central Park as a cycling oasis. New York’s John Lindsay and his parks commissioner Thomas Hoving initiated a weekend ban on automobiles in Central Park in 1966 —a policy that has staid in place since. Today we would call this Ciclovia: A large area in an urban environment where bikes reign. Things were happening in New York: Fifth Avenue was closed to traffic on Sundays beginning on Earth Day 1970, and the first bus lanes in the country were built there.
For the young man from New York who loved his bikes, who went to art school in Stuttgart, this experience was important. When he came to Santa Monica, with a bike and a Olivetti typewriter, he got involved in local politics: There was renters rights, and he went on to establish the Santa Monica Arts Commission and served on its board for many years: They put on Ballet on the Beach, Shakespeare on the Pier, and the iconic Chain Reaction in front of RAND, sponsored by the widow of McDonald’s fast food empire. The Art and Design program at Santa Monica College was established.
That was the time of Bikecology on 28th and Wilshire, in the old Bekin’s Building before they moved to 1515 Wilshire, and before it turned Supergo and before it went Performance. Paul was fired up to bring the New York experience to Santa Monica: Central Park bicycle paradise on weekends translated onto the West coast as – bike lanes for every day. The hope was a that strip of paint on the road could recreate the car-free experience of Central Park on weekends. Only an art student who trained with Willi Baumeister and Fritz Winter could pull this off: The street was his canvas, and the bike lane was his stroke. A petition was crafted and circulated at Bikecology and yielded 500 signatures, requesting the council to paint bike lanes. Mayor Jim Conn, the famous pastor from Ocean Park, received the petition. The first bike lane went down on San Vicente. Sadly, the strip of paint has not been able to reproduce the full hit of street ownership that New York’s Central Park offered cyclist every weekend, but those vehicular cyclists who are critical of bike lanes should remember that these humble strips of paint were a little revolution when they first appeared.
Paul was part of the racing scene in Santa Monica back when cycling jerseys and shorts could be mistaken as a Halloween costume. Every Sunday morning the Trancas Death Ride departed from the pier going all the way to El Matador Beach, past Malibu. Victor was already building frames on Ocean Park Ave. Paul was also a Board Member of Co-Opportunity, and as an annual community service he offered bicycle instruction for the clients at the supermarket. The best ride in Santa Monica is still Ocean Avenue, up San Vicente, around the Golf Course, and down again. He rode De Rosa & Colnago: but you would not ride a fixed gear on the street. The CAMPAGNOLO logo still clearly visible on his right leg, just above the sock, firmly tattooed into his skin. That gave a lot of street cred back then. He once had a blow-out coming down a canyon. Another accident happened when this mother unloaded the baby from the car, kicking open the car door right into his path. Paul did 8000 miles a year, raced for Marina del Rey Cycling Club and was a member of USCF. After all these miles, a sore back and a dodgy hip have brought an end to riding. The bikes have been sold, but he clearly sees the need to educate cyclists so that they can have a positive experience on the road.
Today Paul looks back on many years of IMDB credits. He directed his own play “Mutiny at Port Chicago” at Santa Monica’s Ruskin Theater at the Airport.