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History of the AIDS Memorial: A guest column by longtime Hillcrest activist Rick Wilson

Today’s controversial AIDS Memorial actually happened decades ago. It was 1994 when a location was first chosen in Balboa Park. It was before protease inhibitors. There was no cure. The battle wasn’t over.

I was a 42, gay white male living in the Gay district of San Diego (Hillcrest) and infected with the deadly virus HIV/AIDS. It was the Gay Plague. The darkness of those never changing, sad years was made up of misery, despair and desperation. Hope was overshadowed by moments of anger as rushed hospital visits and memorials were blurring into one another. Stigma, isolation and denial ran strong. I couldn’t even say the word.

The proposed project was quite emotional and political. What started out as a simple “park bench” from our gay leaders grew into a grandiose $300,000 (and still climbing) controversial AIDS memorial. The design was to have huge, petrified “dead trees” with yards and yards of concrete to walk on and reflect as the dead trees were to represent the fallen victims of AIDS. The location was at Quince Street and Balboa Drive…also known as “speedo beach”. Five acres of one of the most beautiful open spaces of the park.

The memorial task force consisted of newly elected openly gay Councilmember Christine Kehoe. She was popular and a welcomed Democrat who represented both Hillcrest and Balboa Park. Nicole Murray, a man, was appointed to Republican Mayor Susan Golding’s Gay and Lesbian Advisory Board. Tony Zampella was President of the Republican Log Cabin Club. Republican State Assemblyman Jeff Marston and Ben Dillingham who once served under Democrat Mayor Maureen O’Connor.

As months went by, the project became more flawed and the task force renamed it the “living aids memorial” then “railroaded” it to City Council for a final vote. There was opposition. Act Up (Coalition to Unleash Power) protested, “don’t bury us, we’re not dead yet”. “The money could be used for services and for HIV/AIDS Prevention”. They passed a resolution “No AIDS Memorial until a Cure is Found”.

Councilmember Judy McCarty opinions represented those who didn’t want “disease” memorials in city parks. Publisher, Michael Portatino, of the well circulated Gay and Lesbian Times and also known as a “shaker and mover” disapproved of the City’s gay project. The San Diego Democratic Club, a strong voice in the community weighed in on the political matter and voting “No” to supporting the memorial. Councilmember Kehoe eventually reversed her decision, voting against the memorial.

The Mayor and entire City Council “shot down” the 1994 controversial Balboa Park AIDS Memorial. It was dead and HIV/AIDS wasn’t …it was such a long time ago.

One thought on “History of the AIDS Memorial: A guest column by longtime Hillcrest activist Rick Wilson”

We should be careful about approving memorials and public art installations. I think it was a terrible idea to have dead trees as a key element of the memorial. Poor trees, were they to be chopped down while alive and then dumped unceremoniously onto the concrete? How does it make sense to mourn young lives destroyed by destroying other young lives? What was the memorial committee thinking? Apparently, all the planning was done in secret. Otherwise some sensible person have pointed out how stupid this idea was.

This has all the markings of San Diego politics (gay or straight) “as usual”. A small, self-appointed group imposes its vision on the community without consulting that community first. By the time the community finds out, the project is a fait accompli, and it is too late to make changes.

Mr. Wilson, a friend of mine, is too modest in his account of what happened. He was a “Paul Revere” who became aware of what was going on, tried to approach his gay city councilmember to object, and was brushed off. It was then that he told ACT UP and, with a few allies he had gathered, brought pressure to bear on Ms. Kehoe. In my opinion, Mr. Wilson did the community a great service by saving it from something that would have been awful. Without his intervention as a private and anonymous citizen, this hideous project would have gone forward.

Another problem with the memorial was the large amount of Balboa Park land that it was to take up. Balboa Park is so crammed with special uses — zoos, museums, etc. — that there is very little open parkland left for peaceful contemplation of nature. Parks are supposed to be natural places, with a minimum of human footprint. And then there are some other questions to be answered: 1) Why a memorial when people are still dying of AIDS? Shouldn’t there be a cure first? 2) Why an AIDS memorial, but not a memorial to other diseases?
Sorry, the answer that “other places have done it, too” is not a good answer to those questions. It is rather an excuse for not answering them.

If we are to have an AIDS memorial at all, I believe it should be modest and understated. As a community, we are supposed to have good taste.. Any memorial we build should reflect that. Save the “grand visions” for something else.

Photo (c) Schmidt Design Group in San Diego's Gay & Lesbian News Weekly in Hillquest Urban Guide

1 Mayo 1994
Rick Wilson, San Diego, CA