Someone is taking the adornments from the Wishing Bench in East Lawrence

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It’s ‘like someone stealing flowers off of graves,’ community member says

Someone is stripping the Wishing Bench of its wishes. 

An anonymous bandit — or group — is decimating the beloved East Lawrence landmark under the cloak of night. Flowers, ribbons, stuffed animals, old auto parts, Christmas ornaments, household keepsakes — all gone. Pieces that are replaced quickly disappear in the night.

And the people responsible for the bench are mystified.

“We have noticed for a few weeks that most of the adornments on the Wishing Bench have been disappearing,” East Lawrence Neighborhood Association President Barry Shalinsky said. “We do not know who is doing this or why.”

Sitting on the corner of East Ninth and Delaware streets, the Wishing Bench is in a vulnerable place. Originally built as a KU class project in 2007 and moved to its current location in 2011, it’s dependent on kindness and caretaking from community members as it welcomes anyone who happens upon it.

“Sit and make a wish,” a sign beckons. “You won’t be disappointed.” 

A recent photo of the Wishing Bench shows how it appeared before its decorations were stolen. (Courtesy photo)

When a fire damaged the bench in 2021, community members donated money to refurbish it. A ramp was also added to make it accessible for people who use wheelchairs. 

After making a wish, some people leave a vestige of their wish behind: books, trinkets, beads, a dollhouse, a lamp, a clock, an old sewing machine, CDs, a dog collar, hanging ropes of yarn — whatever gifts people have on hand or believe the bench deserves in exchange for their wish. 

From “I want to win the race at school” to “please bring my true love back to me,” the wishes are private and singular. 

“The bench is more than just a neighborhood quirk,” said Tony Peterson, who lives four blocks away from the beloved bench. “It had developed an almost religious shrine status. People would go there just to meditate or leave small things for quiet personal reasons.”

Peterson left a framed picture a couple days ago. The next morning, it was gone. 

“What’s been happening is like someone stealing flowers off of graves in the middle of the night,” Peterson said.

Tony Peterson recently left a framed picture at the Wishing Bench. The next morning, it was gone. (Contributed photo)

In addition to the missing decorations — some of which were left by Catherine Reed, a longtime Wishing Bench caretaker who died in 2021 — the wooden plank that made the bench a comfortable place to sit also has been taken. 

“That was particularly upsetting because it was donated and installed by Frank Janzen, a longtime friend of the neighborhood who recently died of cancer,” Shalinsky said. “For some of us, it was a tangible reminder of Janzen’s goodness and generosity.”  

East Lawrence community leader Dave Loewenstein is befuddled and disheartened about the bench banditry. 

“Places like this are always very vulnerable, because, you know, there are no employees, there’s no surveillance, there’s no owner,” Lowenstein said. “It’s made up of, you know, the things that people believe, but even more than that, it’s made up of the wishes that people bring to it. So it’s embodied in that way and it just breaks my heart that someone would — I just don’t understand what’s going on.”  

On social media, people are speculating about who could be removing items from the Wishing Bench.  

“There has been some unfortunate speculation on social media that Lawrence’s unhoused population is somehow responsible for the Wishing Bench being stripped of its adornments,” Shalinsky said. “There is no evidence of this … We can say for certain that there are hundreds and hundreds of unhoused residents of Lawrence who did not do this. There has also been speculation that owners of apartment buildings in the area might be responsible. Again, that is merely speculation. We do not want to see any group of people get demonized for the actions of a few.” 

Not knowing who is stripping the bench, Loewenstein hopes there’s a way to convince them to stop. 

“If we can find out why it’s happening, I hope that there’s a way to address it,” Loewenstein said. “It’s a very special place.” 

In the meantime, Loewenstein suggests people continue to bring offerings. 

“There are changes that happen in neighborhoods and if we want to maintain the culture that we have within them, we have to be responsive and care for them,” Loewenstein said. “One way to heal is just to continue to put stuff out there even if somebody’s taking it off, because if we don’t anymore, it’ll be like we’re giving up.” 

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Chansi Long (she/her) reported for The Lawrence Times from July 2022 through August 2023. Read more of her work for the Times here.

Note: A misspelled name in this article has been corrected.

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