Oakland, CA
United States
The Gardens at Lake Merrit East Bay AIDS Memorial Garden since 1 December 2024
without names
New AIDS memorial planned for East Bay. Here’s what it would look like
San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park is home to the National AIDS Memorial Grove, where hundreds have gathered each December for decades on World AIDS Day to honor and remember their friends and loved ones. No such memorial yet exists in the East Bay — but one may rise as soon as next year along the shore of Lake Merritt in Oakland, organizers say. The city in coming months could approve plans for an AIDS Memorial Garden, according to the group East Bay Getting to Zero and the Friends of the Gardens at Lake Merritt, a volunteer organization that maintains the themed gardens at Lakeside Park.

“People in the East Bay are ready to honor their loved ones,” said Jesse Brooks, one of Getting to Zero’s leads for the project. “It will give a place of solace where people can go and remember their loved ones.” Brooks, 61, is a community activist and pharmacy specialist at the AIDS Healthcare Foundation who has been HIV-positive since 1993. He said having an AIDS memorial garden in Oakland is radical, because unlike San Francisco, where people openly talked about HIV in the 1980s, many in the East Bay city kept quiet due to HIV stigma. He said San Francisco also had more financial resources for HIV services compared to Oakland.

Brooks said the garden could help start conversations that would help eliminate shame and stigma around HIV in the East Bay. It will also memorialize the communities of color whose stories often go untold in other HIV memorials, he said. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black and African Americans are disproportionately affected by HIV due to racism, systemic inequities, residential segregation and social and economic marginalization — making up more than 40% of infections in the United States, with Hispanics/Latinos as the second most impacted group. “I’m really excited because we come from a place of silence, and Oakland is stepping out into the limelight,” Brooks said. “This will highlight the diversity of HIV that has never been highlighted before (and) the East Bay story, which has never been told before, as we talk about San Francisco being in the limelight for so many years.”

The Friends of the Gardens at Lake Merritt designated a parcel of space at the 7-acre Lakeside Park — between the Mediterranean and Bonsai gardens — where the East Bay AIDS memorial garden would be built, according to city documents. Getting to Zero is raising money and applying for grants to fund the project, which would be gifted to the city of Oakland, organization officials said. The cost is estimated at around $475,000, city documents show. The city’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission approved design plans and accepted the “gift-in-place donation” during its April 12 meeting. “This is going to be historic for Oakland,” Brooks said at the meeting.

Preliminary renderings of the proposed project, designed by SERA Architects Inc., show a circular bench surrounded by plants, trees and red vertical metals meant to capture the sound from a nearby waterfall, said Craig Rice, director of operations of the firm’s Oakland office. Another bench encircles that with a red metal meant to represent the red AIDS ribbon, which will be engraved with text and QR codes pointing to testimonials, the history of the AIDS epidemic and health care information. The garden will be built on what is now the existing Lily Garden, Rice said. Up to four current specimen trees will be preserved, and the paths, planting areas and an existing bridge nearby will be rebuilt, he said.

Council Member Carroll Fife, whose district includes the gardens, and former Mayor Libby Schaaf wrote letters to the advisory commission in support of the plan. The project still requires approval from the Planning Department and may also need sign-off from the City Council, said Oakland city spokeswoman Jean Walsh. The groups plan to host town halls to get community feedback. Construction is expected to begin next summer, with an anticipated grand opening event in December 2024, said ZJ Eskman, a spokesperson for Getting to Zero.

Jessica Flores. Images © SERA Architects SF Chronicle

23 April 2023
Jessica Flores, San Francisco