Cancer Survivors’ Plaza, gifted to Bakersfield in 1996, can’t survive theft and vandalism

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BAKERSFIELD, Calif. – It was a generous and memorable gift: a set of bronze sculptures commemorating the struggle against cancer. When Cancer Survivors Plaza was dedicated in Bakersfield’s Beach Park in 1996, it was a big deal. Now those valuable sculptures are missing and presumably stolen.

Has anyone noticed? Does anyone care?

Cancer Survivors’ Plaza, $25,000 worth of bronze, was gifted to the city of Bakersfield as a symbol of hope and encouragement. Now all it is is a symbol of discouragement.

 There were once 25 of these memorials around North America, virtually identical. There are 23 today, now that the one in Bakersfield’s Beach Park, dedicated March 30, 1996, has gone missing.

Cancer Survivors Plaza was built with $170,000 in cash and in-kind donations from the community near the corner of 24th and Oak streets. It depicted a cluster of apprehensive bronze figures entering the gauntlet of cancer treatment – with six-foot-tall square gates symbolizing the ordeal to come. 

And on the other side of the gauntlet, three joyous figures, two adults and a child, emerging triumphant. It was a message of determination and perseverance, faith and courage. At one time the plaza regularly hosted cancer awareness events and fundraisers.

Now, the sculptures are gone, leaving only the gauntlet gates. And Cancer Survivors Plaza, once a symbol of hope, is now a symbol of neglect, a sorry reflection of a destructive element in society that sometimes seems like it’s winning.

It’s believed individual figures in the sculpture were stolen one at a time, in pieces, over an undetermined period of time, a mere 300 feet from one of the city’s busiest intersections. The Bakersfield Police Department doesn’t know because no one seems to have reported the thefts. No police reports are on file. 

Recreation and Parks Director Rick Anthony, a Bakersfield native who returned seven months ago to work in his hometown, said there was no single horrific theft to report to police.

“It’s happening so prevalently that it may not rise to the occasion that the police would actually have a report.” he said. “One of those things where we just fix it. I have a whole list here – a spreadsheet – of things we fix on a regular basis. The police got other fish to fry.”

The thefts were news to Vangie Rich of Kansas City, Mo., who retired three years ago as executive director of the R.A. Bloch Cancer Foundation, part of the Richard and Annette Bloch Family Foundation. The Bloch foundation installed these bronze gauntlets across the continent over a quarter century, starting in 1990. The pace slowed after Richard Bloch, founder of H&R Block, the tax preparation company, and a 26-year cancer survivor himself, died in 2004. The projects were halted altogether in 2011. 

“We gift these parks to communities,” Rich said. “We do it in good faith that they will continue to upkeep the park, to make sure that the lawns are mowed and flowers are put in and make it an attractive attraction for people who have been diagnosed with cancer to go in, walk through it, and come out feeling more positive.”

Rich says replacement sculptures are probably not available. Maybe it’s just as well. Parks employee Race Slayton says vandalism and theft are rampant at all of the city’s parks.

“It’s extremely bad out here as far as vandalism,” he said. “On a daily basis we have theft. And I don’t know who’s doing it, but it sure is rough keeping things nice.”

So, what became of the sculpture? It’s pure speculation, but unscrupulous recyclers may have purchased it a piece at a time. The going rate for scrap bronze is $2.55 a pound – a painful thing to ponder .

Some might blame this fiasco on something in the character of this city, but Vangie Rich assures KGET theft and vandalism of Bloch foundation sculptures have occurred in several cities. But the Bakersfield plaza may be the first to have been stolen completely.

Meanwhile, according to Rich, the two Bloch plazas in Canada – in Ottawa and Mississauga, Ontario – are as pristine as the day they were installed.

Rick Anthony, a cancer survivor himself, has a message for those facing cancer treatment who might be feeling dismayed by all this.

“We all have to find our peace and our serenity in other things,” he said. “Just go and take a walk and let the park, the whole, entire park, be your center of hope.”

The thief or thieves did a pretty good job of desecrating the Cancer Survivors Plaza, taking everything except the big, square gates. Why didn’t they take those? Probably because they’re made of balsa wood and fiberglass, not bronze.

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