AIDS Memorial Divides Village People: Tiny Triangle Tears Community Between Reflection and Recreation

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Reflecting on an AIDS memorial. (AIDS Memorial Coalition)

Happy hour had just ended at the Stonewall Inn on Monday night (2-for-1 well, beer and wine). Rob (dirty martini) and Steve (Budweiser) were sitting at a table discussing the merits of Tom Brady and Eli Manning.

“Brady is better in the pocket, he’s better by the numbers, but Eli just always pulls it out for you,” Scott said. “No pun intended,” he quickly added.

“I think Brady’s better. He’s just past his prime,” allowed Rob.

So they were in agreement, a rarity, they said.

Among the things they disagreed on—Thai food (Rob prefers pad thai, Scott pad see ew), books (Rob thrillers, Scott histories)—was a recent proposal for an AIDS memorial on a triangle of land across from the shuttered St. Vincent’s Hospital.

“I think it’s a lovely idea,” Scott said. “It had a huge impact on the gay community, on the neighborhood, on the entire city, and it has never been properly commemorated. This would be the perfect place to remember those who were lost.”

“It’s a big community,” Rob said. “Bigger than just us. We need a space that feels welcoming to everyone. Besides, I don’t like the design. All those mirrors, it looks like something Frank Gehry would do.”

This fight has more color than a rainbow flag.

The AIDS Memorial Park was conceived by Christopher Tepper and Paul Kelterborn, friends with a flair for city planning—Mr. Tepper works at the city’s Economic Development Corporation, Mr. Kelterborn at the Municipal Art Society. They are no strangers to the power of a nice public space. Their inspiration came from a 2010 article in New York magazine, about the closing of St. Vincent’s Hospital and the unusual role it played in serving the AIDS community in New York.

“The building standing there being vacant had become a sort of de facto monument to the epidemic,“ Mr. Kelterborn told The Observer.

When Rudin Management, the august real estate family that had been working to turn the hospital into condos for years, revived its plan last spring, the young bucks saw an opportunity and launched the AIDS Memorial Park Coalition to create a proper memorial in New York, something a city long associated with the illness lacks.

But there are those in the Village who have been less than taken with the idea. (This is the Village after all, so everyone has an opinion on what goes on in their backyard.)

rudin park AIDS Memorial Divides Village People: Tiny Triangle Tears Community Between Reflection and Recreation

The Rudins are rooting for a regular park. (Rudin Management)

“We are a park-starved community,” said Marilyn Dorato, head of the Greenwich Village Block Association. “We need more space for people to just sit out and relax. There is a section of the approved plan that has an AIDS memorial. There is opposition to giving this whole space over to a use like this.”

 

According to Ms. Dorato—who says she has been called homophobic for her opposition—she lost a number of close friends to AIDS and a memorial would be too painful. “I don’t really need to be overwhelmed with memories all the time,” she said. “That period was really, really dreadful.”

There are those in the gay community who oppose the plan, as well. “I’d rather have a park,” said Scott Colton, head of the 305 West 13th Street Tenants Association. “I don’t think we need to memorialize AIDS.” Ms. Colton felt that many within the AIDS community have been cast aside by what might be called the AIDS Establishment run by gay men.

“What are we memorializing, a disease?” she said. “That was controllable!  What, bad behavior of people who went out and had sex knowing full well that was how it was transmitted with total disregard for the consequences?”

Even some of the old guard oppose the plan, feeling that the memorial is the work of arrivistes. “The AIDS garden was a plan by a group of 20-something men in the gay community,” said Tim Lunceford, an activist opposed to both the memorial and the Rudin plan.

The Rudins are against the memorial for practical reasons: there is concern that altering the plan could reopen the public review process, delaying construction of those condos. The plan is currently under review at the City Council, having won support from the City Planning Commission in January. (It was staunchly opposed in the fall by Community Board 2 while Borough President Scott Stringer conditionally approved of it.) The Council will vote by April.

The developer is sticking to his own park proposal, already approved by the planning commission, though he points out it will have AIDS memorial aspects. “We’ve always been very consistent in the design that we’ve put forth in working with the community, that we have placeholders for commemorative elements reflecting HIV and also the rich history of St. Vincent’s,” Mr. Rudin told The Observer after the commission voted for his plan on Jan. 23.

Among the powerful people backing the memorial is the same planning commission that approved Mr. Rudin’s plans. “Given the past efforts of the applicant on this proposal, I am confident they will continue to work with the community in the future, including those interested in creating the AIDS memorial,” influential chair Amanda Burden said.

Messrs. Tepper and Kelterborn have lined up some influential backers as well, including Whoopi Goldberg, Kenneth Cole and Robert Hammond of the Friends of the High Line, who are on the jury for the memorial design competition, launched in November. Michael Arad, designer of the 9/11 memorial, chaired the jury and has become a de facto spokesman for the project.

An official design was announced on Jan. 30. Called Infinite Forest, it was designed by Brooklyn firm studio a+i and features a stand of birch trees bounded by a triangle of mirrored walls. A nice place for reflection, but not necessarily somewhere to take the kids frolicking on a play date.

The ultimate decision on the fate of the memorial stands with Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who must decide between one of the city’s most powerful real estate barons and the pillar of her political base, the Village’s gay community, not to mention her constituents opposed to the memorial. The community has been demanding numerous concessions from the Rudins for affordable housing, a smaller condo tower and other issues, which could be costly to the developer, and it is possible he and the speaker could come to an agreement on an AIDS memorial that would be far less costly than any of those proposals. A mirrored olive branch.

Then again, city planning officials said that it would be almost impossible to approve the coalition’s design within the current land-use review, setting the development back as much as a year—one promise in the Rudin deal is that the condos cannot open before a new emergency care center or the park space is completed, which is tentatively scheduled for 2014.

This could just be a politically savvy move by two upstarts trying to get a big AIDS memorial built somewhere, anywhere. Get on board with one of the most contentious development fights of a generation and see where it takes you. You win, you win. You lose, you have built up a huge base of support. For her part, the speaker is already hard at work on the issue. A Quinn spokesperson reported diplomatically, “We look forward to working with all parties to ensure the appropriate location and design for an AIDS memorial.”

mchaban@observer.com

eknutsen@observer.com

Comments

  1. TriBeNaval says:

    But what happened to Steve?

  2. Mfriedbe says:

    Christine Quinn is making a mistake if she thinks she can just kick the can down the road and make vague promises for an AIDS Memorial she has shown little interest in supporting.  The space is ideal, the location is ideal, the time is now.  And that idiot Scott Colton who is talking about “bad behavior”?  That’s offensive.  He’s exactly the reason why you need an AIDS Memorial Park, so you can educate blowhards like him. 

  3. Mgalbe says:

    Christine Quinn’s base in the village is the LBGT community. I guarantee that what the developer is proposing will not commemorate the 100,000 people who died from AIDS in NYC since the beginning of the epidemic. While I do want a beautiful park with trees and benches, I don’t think that’s at odds with a park which would  commemorate those who have passed and educate future generations.   The proposed winning design would mark the place – in fact, the epicenter – of the urban ground where the majority of people infected with HIV were treated in the 80s and 90s. Why should we allow Scott Rudin to unsympathetically erase the history that this space so clearly marks?  New York city needs and deserves an AIDS Memorial Park and there is no better place than the proposed location across from St. Vincents.

  4. Oldtimer2323 says:

    So this memorial is only for the Gay people who died in the plague? Will it not include the tens of thousands of other New Yorkers – primarily IVDUs and lovers of IVDUs?

    In general we need fewer monuments and memorials and more living now. More focus on the evil politics that exacerbated the AIDS crisis for the Gay community and pretty much created it (through syringe prohibition and the fake ‘war on drugs’) for the IVDU community and less glossing over of the past so that we don’t see a repeat plague worsened by politics and bigotry in the future.

    1. Oldtimer2323 says:

       Oh – and Christine Quinn is an evil representative of the 1% who have destroyed this city and should be run out of town with her buddy Bloomberg….

  5. Anonymous says:

    While I appreciate the effort by the article’s authors to maintain some critical distance from the debate, including the quote by Scott Colton above without qualification is irresponsible and borderline aggressive. As a society, I’m positive we have moved beyond giving “blowhards,” as Mfriedbe called him, a public voice.

    More generally, I would ask why it’s so hard for the monstrous scale alone of this disaster to give the memorial and learning center project more traction, but then again – the reasons are likely the same ones that kept the AIDS crisis under wraps when it began in the 80s – prejudice, ignorance, and political arrogance. Instead of confronting the true issues at stake and linking them to the process ahead, this article takes those bureaucratic and political roadblocks and spins them somehow as the project’s likely original motivation.

    The design is most definitely not perfect – but let’s have THAT debate, not discuss New Yorkers’ right to commemorate and learn about this crisis that has affected and continues to affect hundreds of thousands of their friends and family members.