Bette Midler Has A Bench!
Stolen bench worth more than scrap value
Written by Mark Hare
Jun. 9, 2011

Every thriving neighborhood needs a little glue – something that engages the residents and helps them forge a community identity.

On my street, we have parties and small flower gardens with signs that welcome visitors at either end of the street. In other places, there are community vegetable gardens where people share their harvest. Others have block picnics, street sales, community outings to parks or beaches. The city’s Grove Place neighborhood – a cluster of narrow, lovely streets nestled just north of the Eastman Theatre – shares a collection of art. The art is glue. But late last month someone took a decorative bench from Selden Street – one of four benches by metal sculptor Paul Knoblauch.

“People would sit there and read,” says Selden Street resident Roz Goldman. “Brides would have their pictures taken on it; Eastman students would pose on it with their instruments.” And the bench made a few cameo pictures in films shot in Grove Place, where the streets look like Boston or Toronto.

The Selden bench may have been the simplest of the Knoblauch pieces. One on Gibbs Street is called the Bette Midler Bench because its teal scalloped back resembles a mermaid costume she wore in her early showgirl days. Another, at Gibbs and University Avenue, is called the Josephine Baker, named for the glamorous African-American showgirl who was the toast of Paris in the 1940s and ’50s.

The neighbors originally bought the benches in the early 1990s, but they later donated them to the city, which removes and stores them for the winter. The benches are bolted to the sidewalk; the best guess is that thieves cut it from its mounts and took it to sell for scrap, Goldman says. It’s happened before to street art when the scrap prices are high.

Grove Place is an intimate neighborhood, anchored by a row of 1870s townhomes on Gibbs Street, as well as the 1990s Eastman School dorms. Selden Street has a cluster of modern row houses and Windsor Street is known for its small Victorian cottages.

Art defines the space. “Gentle Woman” is a raised copper piece by Leonard Urso, who heads the metal department at Rochester Institute of Technology; it hangs from a streetside wall at 13 Selden. “Dancers,” by Peter Macon, is situated in a common space in a Selden Street courtyard.

A lawnmower trellis is permanently at rest near the corner of Selden and Windsor; “Mask,” a terra cotta colorful face, overlooks walkers along Selden.

It’s not just stuff; these pieces of clay and metal invite conversation and interaction among neighbors and visitors. “The art really transforms our space,” Goldman says. “It inspires people to do things to their property, to beautify the streets and yards.”

Grove Place is distinct among Rochester neighborhoods, a true downtown enclave of compact living spaces with shared green space and designed for walking. Its collection of art gives the neighborhood a sense of place; it is a backdrop to the daily rhythms that make a cluster of streets a neighborhood.

The theft of one bench can’t break a neighborhood. But to see that sculpture as a pile of scrap is to miss its true value. Completely.

Mark Hare’s column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He can be reached at (585) 258-2351.

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