Film is the perfect medium to capture the beauty and peace of the National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. This documentary, in particular, captures the memorial across the seasons, such as they are in San Francisco: spring, summer, rain, swirling fog. There’s a real sense that this is a living, breathing, growing landscape.
For all that, the AIDS Grove is an artificial landscape, carved out of sand and neglect in the midst of an extremely busy park. The people who do the work of gardening, maintenance, and building the memorial features came to be at odds (fortuitously for the filmmaker) over just what this landscape remembers.
Originally the Grove was envisioned as a peaceful place where people who felt ostracized from traditional holy ground could hold memorial gatherings and grieve without stigma for the tens of thousands who’ve died of AIDS and have no other monument. As the worst of the epidemic seems to be over and AIDS directly impacts fewer lives each year, the Grove’s board of directors wonders, “Is this memorial for people who suffered the losses firsthand or for future generations?”
A false comparison is made to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC, visited by two million people each year. For one thing (which the film neglects to note), that Memorial stands between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. It’s not like people go out of their way to see the Vietnam Memorial. For another, fewer than 50,000 American soldiers died during the Vietnam War, while 636,000-and-counting have died of AIDS in the US. The Vietnam War ended; AIDS continues to ravage the world. Apples and oranges.
The documentary records the impassioned debate between the factions who see the Grove as a healing space and those (mostly not directly affected by the plague) who feel the Grove isn’t shocking enough to force untouched visitors to feel how devastating the plague was. The schism appears generational.
Without comment, the movie captures the contest to design a new memorial element as a way to confront people and cause controversy. Tellingly, while emphasis was placed on finding a memorial design that would shock the future, the winning design had its own obsolescence planned in. If built, the stark charred-wood “Living Memorial” would have had seeds planted inside its planks so that, in time, nature would have reclaimed and obscured it. No one in the film notes the irony that, $6 million and a decade later, the Grove would return to being a garden once more.
The film spends too much time interviewing tourists who have gotten lost in Golden Gate Park seeking the Japanese Tea Garden. If the point is that the Grove is not well known, I suspect the solution is better advertising. It seems to me that the Grove faces the same problem that more traditional cemeteries face: how do you draw people who are not connected to the dead through your gates?
Finally, at the end, the film shows a volunteer sobbing because his team found a marble urn in the Grove when they were weeding. A man is shown scattering ashes. Memorial services are held. I’m not sure if this is meant as counterpoint to the aborted design contest, but it demonstrates that the National AIDS Memorial Grove does serve a real and necessary purpose. Perhaps it’s more personal in scope than “national” implies — and some on the board of directors are comfortable with that, but until the plague has ended, there continues to be a need for a place to remember and grieve.
The film has shown several times on PBS. It’s worth seeking out. It will give you much food for thought.
The Circle of Friends, dedicated to lives touched by AIDS
National AIDS Memorial Grove
At the intersection of Bowling Green Drive and Nancy Pelosi Drive
Golden Gate Park
San Francisco, California 94121 Dedicated: September 21, 1991 Size: 7.5 acres Number of interred: unknown Open: Dawn to dusk Tours: Free tours of the AIDS Memorial Grove are available between 9 a.m. and noon on the third Saturdays of each month between March and October. The 20-minute tours begin at the Main Portal. To schedule a tour, call 415-765-0497.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a new disease swept through some neighborhoods of San Francisco, New York City, and Los Angeles. Doctors scrambled to get ahead of what was initially derided as the “Gay Plague,” a sexually transmitted collection of rare cancers, fungal infections, and organ failures that came to be called Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.
Moonwalk Way, dedicated to Douglas and Larry “who met the day humans walked on the moon.”
Infection, in those days, was lethal. Since gay couples could not legally marry, lovers were barred from sickrooms and deathbeds in hospitals across the country. Because of the social stigma of homosexuality in America at the time, obituaries often lied about the cause of death. Many victims chose to be cremated because they expected they would have no survivors to mourn them. Unlike the epidemics of the past, graveyards did not record their deaths. To make matters worse, in 1987, Senator Jesse Helms proposed quarantine for anyone who tested positive for HIV, the human immunodeficieny virus.
To counter the panic and bigotry, a small group of San Franciscans envisioned a serene place dedicated to all lives touched by AIDS “where people would come alone or in groups to hold memorial services.” Architects, landscapers, and amateur gardeners gathered together in 1989 to meet with the San Francisco Department of Recreation and Parks to discuss possible sites for the memorial.
Later that year, donations in memory of prominent local landscape architect Stephen Marcus (who redesigned the graveyard at Mission Dolores), provided initial funds for what would become the AIDS Memorial Grove.
By February 1990, the Grove Steering Committee settled on the De Laveaga Dell for the AIDS Memorial Grove. The little valley, located between the tennis courts and the Academy of Sciences, had been created in 1898 through a gift from the estate of Jose Vicente de Laveaga. When the Dell opened on June 21, 1921, it included a stream, a small lake, iris beds, rhododendrons, camellias, and ferns. It became a little zoo known as the Deer Glen and for a while housed a bear. By the middle of the 20th century, maintenance funds ran out, the animals were moved to the San Francisco Zoo, and the dell became derelict.
The official groundbreaking of the AIDS Grove took place on September 21 1991, attended by San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos. The permanency of the Grove remained in question until 1993, when the Grove’s board of directors signed a 99-year lease with the City of San Francisco.
Thanks to a bill supported by Representative Nancy Pelosi and Senator Dianne Feinstein, the AIDS Grove attained National Memorial status in October 1996. President Bill Clinton recognized it as the first AIDS memorial in the nation. The official designation “proclaims to the world that there is a dedicated space in the national public landscape where anyone who has been touched by AIDS can grieve openly without being stigmatized, can find comfort among others whose lives have been affected by AIDS, and can experience the feelings of renewal and hope inherent in nature.”
Boulder in memory of William Xenos
The Grove has changed and grown over the years. In February 1995, the Main Portal was dedicated by benefactor Steve Silver, creator of San Francisco’s long-running variety show Beach Blanket Babylon. The 7-ton granite boulder which marks the entrance was installed in December that year, on World AIDS Day. Volunteers have planted thousands of trees, shrubs, and plants. They’ve installed six flagstone gathering areas, an accessible gravel path, 18 benches, and granite boulders marked with names of those who have been lost.
A “Belvedere Overlook,” funded by the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, was added in 2002. Its balcony displays polished black granite plaques with a timeline of the epidemic. At that time, 40 million people had been infected with HIV worldwide – and 22 million had already died of AIDS. Of that number, an unknown number of ashes have been buried or scattered inside the Grove, making it akin to a cemetery.
The Grove’s Board of Directors began to wonder whether they should expand the purpose of the Grove in 2003. It was no longer enough that the garden serve as a place of mourning and serenity for survivors. Board members questioned whether the Grove truly represented a national memorial if it was not nationally known. Rather than advertise the Grove and raise its profile, they voted in April to hold a Memorial Design Feature Competition.
Two years later, New York architects Janette Kim and Chloe Town were announced as the winners. Their Living Memorial was inspired by a forest fire. As envisioned, it would include a platform and walkway of charred wood along with an irregular arrangement of black-painted fiber poles. According to the Princeton Alumni Spotlight, “The idea for such a desolate space…sprang from the architects’ desire to produce a kind of ground zero for the soul, to have visitors ‘start from a sense of depletion,’ says Kim.”
The design was a source of controversy almost immediately. Survivors mourning loved ones lost to AIDS found the stark design painfully brutal. They questioned whether anyone could understand the design without the designers’ explanation of it. Board members countered by saying that the Grove needed to look toward the future, when the epidemic needed to be understood by people who had not been touched by it.
In the end, the Grove’s Board voted in December 2007 not to implement Kim and Town’s design. The initially proposed cost of $2 million had swelled to $6 million, which would have wiped out the Grove’s endowment and required major fundraising. The Grove remains a garden full of boulders, benches, and plazas marked with the names of the dead.
It’s hard to know how many National Memorials there are in the US, since the AIDS Grove doesn’t seem to appear on any lists of them. It also appears that AIDS is the only disease to have its own memorial, since neither heart disease nor cancer (the leading causes of death in the US) has one. (AIDS does not rank in the WHO’s top 15 causes of death in the US.)
Still, the epidemic continues. According to the CDC, 1.1 million Americans are living with HIV. Approximately 636,000 people have died of AIDS in the United States. Worldwide, an estimated 8000 people die each day of the disease.
A short documentary about the Grove was released in 2011. I’ll review it tomorrow.
Mostly when I visit a cemetery, I can separate what it represents from the beauty and peace of the place. I don’t see cemeteries as depressing, unless they have been vandalized.
Last week, though, I struggled. I’ve wanted for a while to write about the National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco, but even though it’s one of the loveliest places in the city, I felt such anger and sadness that I had trouble finding words to express them.
Twenty years ago last month, my friend Blair died of AIDS. The speed of his illness was breakneck and terrifying. I was honored to stay at his house during the last week of his life, administering morphine every 20 minutes around the clock with a handful of his friends and his husband Jeff, my best friend.
Blair reading the Chronicle
Blair was 28 when he died.
He didn’t want a monument. Jeff scattered some of Blair’s ashes in their backyard. He had some of them mixed into tattoo ink and tattooed them into his skin. Several friends ate some of them. In the end, some of us took the remainder and tried to dump them into San Francisco Bay. The wind caught them, of course, and blew them back at us.
The worst of the plague was over in the US by the time Blair died. New drugs — and new drug cocktails — turned HIV from a death sentence to a manageable if chronic health problem. Twenty years later, every gay friend I have is HIV positive, but no one else has died yet.
Blair had a stone carved with his name to be placed in the backyard after his death. He had no other grave.
My life has been touched lightly by AIDS, but even so, it was catastrophically changed.
In July, I went to the AIDS Grove one sunny morning, looking for peace and researching a potential Cemetery of the Week. To my horror, a personal trainer had three women crab-walking across a plaza in the western end of the grove.
I’m not narrow-minded about cemeteries. I’m fine with people biking through them, picnicking, playing frisbee, jogging, walking their dogs. I would have said I was fine with whatever, as long as people were respectful and picked up after themselves. I discovered I was not okay with a gang of women in spandex doing leg lifts.
If they had been big beefy guys, would I have been so upset? Probably not. I think the dead would have appreciated the eye candy.
I wanted to march over to the trainer and scream at her. Urns are buried in the Grove. Ashes have been scattered there. Survivors still come to commune with their lost ones. The rocks all around are marked with names and epitaphs. This is hallowed ground. I was too disgusted and disappointed in humanity to speak.
Half a million people have died of AIDS worldwide. 8000 people continue to die each day of the disease. Fewer of those are in America now, but the disease is still killing those around us. One of my friends has AIDS now. By the time he got tested, it was too late for the disease to be prevented. He may yet live a long time, but he may never be healthy.
In the face of AIDS, I don’t know what to do with my anger and grief. I feel the loss of each name in the Grove as a slice of my heart. How can I communicate that to people who weren’t in San Francisco in the 80s and 90s, who don’t remember the gaunt young men with their canes, the mile-long candlelit marches?
I need the Grove to be a place of beauty and healing, so I can find peace for my memories and my fury.
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