The center of the Circle of Friends in the National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. Sarah Hotchkiss/KQED
The center of the Circle of Friends in the National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. (Sarah Hotchkiss/KQED)

How the AIDS Memorial Grove Became the True Heart of San Francisco

How the AIDS Memorial Grove Became the True Heart of San Francisco

I’ve lived in San Francisco long enough to see the city through the fog, at the slant where Market Street runs diagonal to the ocean and the clouds churn slowly over Dolores Park. At this axis the physical city gives way to a psychic city, where cramped Victorians and one-way streets reveal their hidden depths, thresholds to a parallel San Francisco whose vastness and potential cannot be contained by a seven-by-seven peninsula.

I’ve lived in San Francisco long enough to begin to lose sight of this parallel city, as its infinite promise is circumscribed by failures of imagination—needless solutions to frivolous problems and a pitiless lack of answers for daily crises. The ethos of this parallel place, the Haight-Ashbury dream of leading a mindfully communal, fiercely independent life, has not been renewed since the ’60s. It’s a spirit that feels incompatible with tech’s cult of personality and iconography of progress—a tension made manifest through heartbreaking juxtapositions: glittering, empty skyscrapers rising from filthy, tent-ridden streets; impossible advances incapable of advancing anything at all.

A path into the AIDS Memorial Grove.
A path into the AIDS Memorial Grove. (Sarah Hotchkiss/KQED)

For the past few years the National AIDS Memorial Grove in Golden Gate Park has been my refuge from the noise and contradictions of the rest of the city. It is a 30-minute walk from my apartment, but feels worlds away; a parcel of land as insulated from the shouts of Koret playground and the fumes of Hippie Hill as it is from the ubiquity of AirPods and the looming Salesforce Tower. It provides a rare public space for personal epiphanies and private contemplation, and situates them in the midst of one of San Francisco’s greatest communal projects.

The Grove was first conceived at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the late ’80s, a time founding member Alice Russell-Shapiro remembers as “when people would lose everyone in their address books.” Spurred to action by crisis conditions and the inescapability of the reality of sickness, a small group of San Franciscans gathered to create a memorial that would raise awareness, honor the deceased and provide a location for the living to reflect upon what remained.

Like many queer spaces, the AIDS Memorial Grove imagined and actualized a context for itself where none had existed previously. Situated in the former de Laveaga Dell, a once-derelict corner of Golden Gate Park that formerly ranked among its most dangerous areas, the Grove is a revitalized place. In 1996, it was designated a National Memorial by Congress and President Bill Clinton; the Grove has raised a sizable endowment for its preservation. Since 1991, when the Grove first inaugurated its monthly workdays, volunteers have spent a quarter of a million hours refurbishing the site.

Inside the redwoods at the center of the Grove.
Inside the redwoods at the center of the Grove. (Sarah Hotchkiss/KQED)

The once-flooded meadow has been irrigated into a green pasture surrounded by slopes teeming with flowers; the only remaining evidence of overflow is the stream that snakes down the paths from a mouth at the Fern Grotto. The volunteers’ next project will be to restore the lavender slope, an herb valued as much for its soothing properties as for its pleasing shade of purple-blue. “The color palette that was designated in the original masterplan calls for no bright colors,” says the Grove's executive director, John Cunningham. “Everything is supposed to be serene and contemplative.”

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“I like that it’s something that you occupy and come upon, but almost at a parallel place to the rest of the park,” says Jason Oliveira, a San Francisco resident I met reading a book by the stream. “It feels like a memorial, not a monument.”

A conventional monument—a statue or plaque—would diffuse the sense of serenity that pervades the Grove by concentrating its energy upon a single focal point. Attempts at figuration would prove futile in themselves. No body could span the experience of resisting the virus, nor in rendering that resistance would you necessarily capture the warmth and vivacity of those afflicted by it.

One of the Grove's many memorial engravings in stones.
One of the Grove's many memorial engravings in stones. (Sarah Hotchkiss/KQED)

The Grove acknowledges this with a 1996 poem by Thom Gunn inscribed in stone at the western Fern Grotto: “Walker within this circle / pause / although they all died of one cause / remember how their lives were dense with fine compacted difference.”

In their pursuit of fine compacted difference, the Grove offers a portrait of a community and the charm, wit and weirdness of the characters who populated it. Among the benches and boulders are tributes to the disco diva Sylvester and deceased members of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Beach Blanket Babylon, Lazy Bear and Chuck Holmes of the adult film studio Falcon are thanked for their support. A boulder in honor of Jody Bloomquist is framed by budding bluebells: “Bloom you did! / Beloved friend!” And the poetry of a dedication at Moonwalk Way never fails to take my breath away: “To Douglas Watson and Larry Silva / who met the day humans walked on the moon.”

But the Memorial is not wholly queer in character. An alcove carved out of the slope looking over the meadow is dedicated to the hemophilia community—from the late ’70s to the mid ’80s, 90 percent of the condition’s severe sufferers were infected with the virus by a contaminated blood supply. The breadth of the Memorial’s inclusiveness is as impressive as it is haunting.

Names engraved in the Hemophilia Memorial.
Names engraved in the Hemophilia Memorial. (Sarah Hotchkiss/KQED)

The Grove is at its most powerful at the Circle of Friends. “Golden Gate Park is the heart of San Francisco, the Grove is the heart of Golden Gate Park, and the Circle of Friends is the heart of the AIDS Memorial Grove” intone several narrators in a video about the memorial. I agree. Sometimes in the cathedral silence, beneath the shadow of the redwoods that grow in a patch just beyond that flagstone circle, I swear that I can feel a spectral hand on my shoulder.

Being gay can feel like being the heir to an invisible kingdom, the dimensions of which become more illuminated and expansive upon learning its history. But my gut tightens every time I consider the Circle even at the remove of ignorance and youth. “You should be alive!” I want to scream, looking at the impossible sprawl of names. It curdles into anger when I recognize the names of those who are still alive—Tom Hanks, Sharon Stone, Elton John. Neither the Vietnam Veterans Memorial nor the September 11 Memorial mix the names of its community’s supporters with its fallen.

When I first noticed the living it threw into question the cultural integrity of what it means to be an ally, a pressing concern as corporations and interest groups wield proximity to queerness as a biscuit or a wedge to push their product or policy. But the aims of the Grove are undeniably pure, even if I personally find the inclusion of those names inappropriate. As Russell-Shapiro reminded me, these were the people who loved and cared for those with AIDS, who fulfilled the duties and intimacies birth families were unwilling or unable to take on, who advocated and fundraised and provided the basis for this space to exist.

More credit should be given to their sincere efforts; more scrutiny should be applied to monied groups supplanting action with wealth after the fact.

The Fern Grotto at the west end of the Memorial.
The Fern Grotto at the west end of the Memorial. (Sarah Hotchkiss/KQED)

In Tony Kushner’s 1991 play, Angels in America, heaven is depicted as a San Francisco in ruins, irreparably shocked from the day God left the city, an occasion marked by the 1906 earthquake. Burdened by bureaucracy and shaken by tremors that persist in his absence, the angels dread progress in a directionless future for fear of worse things to come.

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The AIDS Memorial Grove was created in the wake one of the worst things to have ever happened, a localized apocalypse that decimated whole worlds. In its example of calmness, distance and community, the Memorial Grove proposes a new perspective (or even spirituality) for how to view and experience the city, a means of shifting parallel lines so that they may meet once again.

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