25 Years After Being Floated, a Massively Pared-Down AIDS Memorial Is Moving Forward
A large and prominent AIDS memorial came close to being built in Balboa Park almost 25 years ago. Now folks are saying the city deserves more than the small, hidden-away memorial that’s being planned.
There’s no AIDS memorial in San Diego, but a group of LGBT advocates is hoping to change that.
The project on the table, though, is a shadow of what it once was. A much larger AIDS memorial came close to being built in Balboa Park almost 25 years ago. Now folks are saying the city deserves more than the small, hidden memorial that’s being planned.
Despite the grumblings, the San Diego AIDS Memorial Task Force is moving forward with plans to add a tribute to those affected by the disease. The memorial is set to be part of a small new city park that will be built on a currently vacant lot at the corner of Third Avenue and Olive Street in Bankers Hill.
The task force, led by Katherine Faulconer, wife of Mayor Kevin Faulconer, and longtime LGBT activist Nicole Murray-Ramirez, has raised $42,000 in private funds. The group recently put out a call for design ideas, and the task force will soon select the top three designs, then let the public vote on the best one.
Construction on the park and the new memorial is scheduled to break ground next year.
Two decades ago, a much larger AIDS memorial was planned for the west side of Balboa Park. In 1994, the Living AIDS Garden had a budget of $303,000 in private funds. It cleared several layers of approval before the City Council eventually voted it down.
The project was killed because of infighting inside the local LGBT community, said Murray-Ramirez, who was a member of the original AIDS memorial task force behind the project. He had issues with the project when the scope and price tag increased. He said he couldn’t support spending so much money on a memorial when funds were still desperately needed for research and to support AIDS patients.
“It came down to spending money on the memorial at that time or putting it into a food bank,” Murray-Ramirez said. “We were still trying to battle AIDS and serve people who had it, and I just knew there was no way we could spend that money on a memorial.”
He ended up stepping down from the original task force. Others followed. Then several LGBT community activists actively campaigned against the memorial.
The chorus of AIDS memorial naysayers got amplified when conservative talk radio host and former San Diego mayor Roger Hedgecock told listeners to oppose the project.
Landscape architect Glen Schmidt, whose firm won the AIDS memorial competition with a concept that included a sculpture made of dead oak tree trunks and a grove of living oak trees, said Hedgecock told people the project would be publicly funded, even though it wasn’t, and called it a waste of taxpayer dollars.
“The City Council was bombarded with folks not wanting it to happen,” Schmidt said.
The AIDS memorial project sat on the city’s backburner for decades until the new task force was formed two years ago.
When Schmidt heard about the latest iteration of the AIDS memorial, he considered submitting a design, but he said he ultimately decided to pass. Instead, he’d like the city and the task force to think about reviving the original design, or at least the original location in Balboa Park.
“It’s significant enough of an issue and affects a significant amount of people in our community,” he said. “It deserves more than to be hidden in small pocket park buried in the community.”
Schmidt and others, like retired architects Bruce Dammann and Charles Kaminski, also question why the project isn’t going through the city’s Commission for Arts and Culture, which oversees the city’s public art program.
Jen Lebron, a spokeswoman for the mayor’s office, said the city doesn’t see the memorial as art.
“The memorial will be an integrated park feature rather than an artwork,” Lebron wrote in an email. “For example, it could be a pathway with names of San Diegans who have died from AIDS etched into the pavers or a grove of trees.”
Dammann said he thinks the memorial should be considered art, or at least something more significant than an architectural embellishment. He said San Diego deserves a bigger, better memorial in a more prominent place – something more akin to the striking AIDS memorial in New York City.
“It’s really unfortunate,” Dammann said. “The memorial deserves more funding. If [the task force] needs more money, the City Council should help them try to find it.”
Kaminski said he thinks the small park, which currently includes a playground, is not a place where people will be able to quietly reflect and appreciate an AIDS memorial. He also said the task force hasn’t been open and transparent enough.
“Unfortunately, there was no public process about site selection, and many in the community, although supporting a memorial, disagree about the location at Olive Street,” he wrote in a letter to city officials.
Murray-Ramirez, though, said he thinks the park is the perfect setting for the memorial. And he said he’s glad the city was able to cut through the typical red tape to make the project finally happen.
“All we want is a quiet, reflective place where we can remember people who’ve been affected by AIDS,” Murray-Ramirez said. “All we want is an AIDS memorial.”