|Albemarle Park, Southeast corner||York AIDS Memorial Garden||
since 1 December 1996
Not long ago, an e-mail from someone seeking information about the York AIDS memorial garden landed in my inbox. The writer was looking for background - the history, how it was established, who designed it, how the location was selected, just about everything. He had created a page on the Web dedicated to the York memorial - a large photo of the memorial anchors it - and was looking to fill it out with the background on the site. It was part of larger effort to catalog every AIDS memorial in the world - so far he has collected more than 130 memorials from 21 countries.
The writer is Jorn Wolters and is from the Netherlands, where he and a small group of volunteers are working to establish an AIDS memorial in Amsterdam, an effort that began, sort of, in 1988 with a group that focused initially on organizing tours of the Dutch AIDS Memorial Quilt. They are currently trying to raise money for the memorial - they've collected 20,000 euros so far - and are also documenting other memorials to demonstrate the efficacy of establishing such a site in raising awareness of AIDS.
And he was hoping that his website could call attention to York's memorial. "I hope that many people outside York will become aware of this hidden treasure in York," Wolters wrote in an e-mail. "The only thing we cannot do, is writing the introductory text. It would be great if you can approach someone who has witnessed the founding of the garden and can give valuable information about its history. We think that this story must be told and shared with the world." That's a noble sentiment.
The only problem is there doesn't seem to be much interest in the memorial in York - for several reasons, one of them the result of good news, which I'll get to in a while. The York memorial, in the southeast corner of the city's Albemarle Park, was dedicated in December 1996. It is a red brick walkway, in the shape of a looped ribbon. Some of the bricks are engraved with the names of those claimed by the disease. When it was dedicated, it bore a plaque that read, "In memory of those who have died from AIDS. In honor of those who are living with AIDS."
Today, the memorial is a bit run down. Some of the bricks are cracked. Some are missing. Grass and weeds have taken root between the bricks. Some of the plants are in need of a trim. The other day, when I stopped by, it appeared someone had trimmed one of the trees, leaving a pile of branches on the garden's threadbare mulch. A concrete pillar once paneled was missing some of the wooden slats around its base, like a hockey player's smile. The top of the pillar was bare, except for the ribbon of glue that once adhered something to it. There was no plaque or sign to indicate what the memorial represented. It does appear abandoned. It appears that the city does maintain it to some extent. The mulch that was there didn't appear to be ancient. The grass around it was mowed. It just appears that it hasn't been kept up over the years.
I called Lettie Johnson at the York County Council of Churches Ordinary People Extraordinary Needs program to ask about the memorial. OPEN was among the groups that helped establish the garden and had organized annual vigils at the site on World AIDS Day. She wasn't surprised that somebody in the Netherlands had expressed interest in the York memorial. "Not with the Internet," she said. And she wasn't surprised by the condition of the memorial. "We haven't done anything with the memorial for about three years," she said. There are a couple of reasons for that. "You need to have volunteers," she said. And they don't have them. What volunteers they had at the beginning - mostly parents of those lost to the disease - have grown older or have drifted away or have stopped volunteering for whatever reason.
The cause is not as urgent as it once was either. And that brings about the good news buried in this story. The AIDS memorial lacks a certain relevance - no disrespect intended to those memorialized there. "The disease," Johnson said, "has become more of a chronic condition what with the medications available now." Far fewer people die from the disease because of advancements in treatment. While it is still a plague in other parts of the world - sub-Saharan Africa comes to mind - in the developed world, of which York is a part, HIV has become manageable. Which kind of makes the memorial obsolete. You can't memorialize people who don't die.
Photos (C) Mike Argento York Daily Record
21 August 2013
Mike Argento, York, PA