December 28, 2006
Alex Baum: Wheels of a Dream
Yet, when asked if he is a mensch, he says, "You never know."
Baum is of French Jewish ancestry, but he speaks with a German accent, befitting one who was born in a small town in Lorraine, which along with the province of Alsace was frequently the subject of territorial disputes between the French and the Germans. Concerning the war, he says without embellishment, "We fought the Germans in any possible way we could."
Although he was caught by the Nazis, he convinced them that he was a resistance fighter, not a Jew. Due to his Algerian passport (his mother was from the North African country), he was treated as a political prisoner in the camps. The Nazis did not question why he was circumcised, because Algerians, being desert dwellers, practiced circumcision for hygienic reasons.
After surviving the Holocaust, Baum vowed that he would be a good role model, like his grandparents and uncles: "I felt a need to do that."
He moved to the United States shortly after the war and settled in Chicago, where he played semipro soccer for the Chicago Kickers. A center-forward on the team, he scored his share of goals, but his greatest goal has been developing cycling programs and recreational facilities for inner-city kids in Los Angeles.
When not working as a caterer, his living for 30 years, he has been an adviser to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the previous three Los Angeles mayors, but Baum is not simply a cycling enthusiast and fitness fanatic -- he has also shown the vision of an urban planner and the determination of a mensch in implementing the now-ubiquitous bike paths throughout the city of Los Angeles, pioneering the Tour of California bike race and building velodromes in Dominguez Hills and Encino.
Of all his projects, he remains most passionate about the creation of bike paths and facilities along the L.A. River. In the next 10 years, he expects to see a 50-mile path bordering the river from the Valley to Long Beach. Speaking with unmistakable enthusiasm, he envisions the following: "You can stop anywhere through the city, enjoy the Sunday or the weekend without using the car; [you can] even ride at night. We have lights and rest stops, parks and a restaurant."
Although the complete river restoration has not come to fruition yet, Baum says that, due to all the bike paths in recent years, 2.5 percent of people now go to work by bike, as opposed to 0.5 percent in the past.
Despite constant talk of ethanol and hybrid cars, this goodwill ambassador to the city of Los Angeles, who served on the 1984 Olympic host committee, might have the simplest and greenest solution of all for Los Angeles' gridlock as well as global warming -- riding a bike.