The Bloch Cancer Survivors Plaza in New Orleans is a survivor, too
As Carnival and Super Bowl 2013 bring tens of thousands of visitors to New Orleans, the Richard and Annette Bloch Cancer Survivors Plaza on Loyola Avenue is ready for its close-up. The park has been completely refurbished after suffering significant damage during Hurricane Katrina.
The unique pocket park features 14 25-foot monolithic columns in parallel rows and a triumphal arch amid palm trees, shrubs and seasonal flowers, benches and a newly refurbished fountain.
It's designed to be a tribute to the living and a healing oasis in the heart of the Central Business District. Dedicated in 1995, the plaza was the pride of then-Mayor Sidney Barthelemy.
"The other cancer parks in other cities do not compare to this," said Florence Schornstein, the founder 30 years ago of Parkway Partners, a nonprofit that aims to support urban green spaces in New Orleans.
Schornstein also was superintendent of the Department of Parks and Parkways during Barthelemy's administration. She remembers receiving Richard Bloch's phone call asking if she would be interested in a gift of $1 million toward the Cancer Survivors Plaza.
When city funds were unavailable to develop the park, Schornstein brought the Blochs' R.A. Bloch Cancer Foundation together with public and private donors, including Ochsner Medical Institutions, Tulane Medical Center and LSU's Stanley S. Scott Cancer Center to bring the project into fruition.
Dedicated to inspiring hope
At age 52, Richard A. Bloch, co-founder of H&R Block, was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer and told he had three months to live. When he beat the odds through aggressive treatment, doctors suggested that he establish the means to help other patients survive.
Bloch devoted the rest of his life to inspiring hope and the courage to fight the disease. He lived another 26 years, dying of heart failure in 2004.
"Get a third opinion, not just a second," Schornstein said. "That was the most valuable thing I learned from him."
Bloch lived in Kansas City, Mo., but he sought out Parkway Partners, which had gained national recognition for establishing community gardens.
After searching the entire city for a location, Bloch chose the site between two busy lanes of traffic near the Superdome and hotels. Schornstein recalls Bloch exclaiming: "That's it."
Bloch preferred busy locations near businesses and homes so that passers-by could witness how many people conquer the deadly disease. According to the National Cancer Institute, 13.7 million Americans with a history of cancer are alive today.
Bloch chose architect Milosav Cekic of Austin, Texas, to design the plaza, which was built by Gootee Construction Co. of New Orleans.
Symbols of triumph
Sculptors designed brick and concrete pillars using powerful symbols from ancient and modern cultures, drawing on traditions as varied as those from Indonesia, Egypt, Greece, Persia, Arabia, Russia and pre-Columbian America. Local artist Brian Borrello designed the New Orleans column, with brass instruments encircling its capital to reflect the city's jazz heritage.
The park features a brick "positive mental attitude" walkway flanked by a series of bronze plaques communicating inspirational and instructional messages about cancer. Among them: "Cancer is the most curable of chronic diseases."
Eight bronze figures crafted by Victor Salmones symbolize patients and their families before, during and after treatment. Many survivors identify with the figures and photograph themselves passing through the mazes after recovery, said Vangie Rich, executive director of the Bloch Foundation.
"The park is a tribute to life," Annette Bloch said.
The park itself is a survivor, after being damaged by Hurricane Katrina's winds and the floodwaters that followed the levee breaches.
"The globe from the fountain was rolling down Loyola Avenue," remembered Jean Fahr, current executive director of Parkway Partners.
Last year, Michael Smith, general manager of the nearby Hyatt Regency, approached Fahr about his hotel adopting the neutral ground. As the Hyatt's general manager before, during and after Katrina, Smith had returned to "lead the charge," he said.
When the Hyatt was renovated after the storm, the entrance was moved to Loyola Avenue, and the park became its front yard. Smith was appalled by the park's condition.
"It was like a jungle," he recalled.
The park still was in need of repairs, including replacing the pavilion roof and fixing the columns and infrastructure on the fountain, at an estimated cost of $150,000.
Smith was a "ball of fire," Fahr said.
He contacted Annette Bloch, asking her to share the costs of renovation. An official from the Bloch Cancer Foundation arrived in New Orleans that same week.
The columns are now patched and power-sprayed, the foliage is trimmed and the fountain refurbished. Now, the park not only is a tribute to cancer survivors, but also, Schornstein said, a fine symbol of the city's post-Katrina revival and the ongoing power of volunteerism to make things happen.
"This is the best that the Cancer Survivors Plaza has ever looked," Smith said.
The Hyatt adopted Loyola Avenue from Poydras to Girod streets and agreed to provide ongoing maintenance, landscaping and security for the park.
"I walk it every morning," Smith said.
Workers from city hall and nearby office buildings read books and eat lunch sitting on the park benches, and riders on the newly opened Loyola Avenue streetcar line will glimpse the park as they glide by.
"I am so proud of New Orleans and the park and pleased it is back to its beauty," Bloch said. "It means so much to me."
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