The Gentrification of Memory: The NYC AIDS Memorial Considered

[Greg Thorpe]

‘81,542 people have died of AIDS in New York City… Their absence is not computed and the meaning of their loss is not considered. 

2,752 people died in New York City on 9/11. These human beings have been highly individuated. The recognition of their loss and suffering is a national ritual…

The deaths of these 81,542 New Yorkers, who were despised and abandoned, who did not have rights or representation, who died because of the neglect of their government and families, has been ignored…

The disallowed grief of 20 years of AIDS deaths was replaced by ritualized and institutionalized mourning of the acceptable dead. In this way, 9/11 is the gentrification of AIDS.’

– Sarah Schulman, The Gentrification of the Mind

On December 1st, World AIDS Day 2016, the New York City AIDS Memorial at St Vincent’s Triangle, Greenwich Village, was formally dedicated to the public, 35 years and 100,000 New York deaths after the virus began to transform the city into its fatal American epicentre.

Gone are the living white birch trees and mirrored interiors of the winning 2012 memorial structure, designed by Brooklyn-based Studio a+i, with the dream-like eternal reflections that were to be generated by the bodies of visitors themselves – literal and invited reflections on the ongoing, uncountable number of lives affected by AIDS worldwide. This winning design was overruled by Rudin Management, the property developers who have built this new city park and its gateway memorial.

Absent too are the proposed ivy and evergreen canopies intended to live and weave their way freely across the wing-like metallic structures that replace the original design ­– the addition of the flora lately vetoed by the Landmarks Preservation Committee, concerned over who would be expected to take care of it.

What remains is an 18-foot tall angular white steel compromise – a canopy constructed of slatted triangular tessellates that offer neither shelter nor shade, and whose abstractions bring to mind nothing much about AIDS (although reflect slightly longer on the innocuous ‘grids’ and eventually your mind may wander far back to the days of ‘GRID’, ‘gay-related immune deficiency’, the medical world’s first attempt at naming the inexplicable condition that had begun to kill gay men – but it’s a reach).

Engraved underfoot, on the dozens of concentric granite circles beneath the canopy – at the curatorial behest of commissioned artist Jenny Holzer – are lyrically fragmented portions taken from ‘Song of Myself’, the 1855 verse by Walt Whitman, the American poet whose death precedes the peak years of the epidemic and the culture of free homosexual expression that it almost decimated, by a whole century.

*

St Vincent’s Triangle is formed from the collision of Greenwich Avenue with West 12th Street and 7th Avenue, just a pleasant five-minute New York stroll from The Stonewall Inn and its own innocuous memorial statues that commemorate the queer uprising there. A more Village address you could not hope to locate. Just across 7th Avenue from the triangle is the former site of the park’s namesake, St Vincent’s Hospital. Through sheer quantity of afflicted neighbourhood residents, the hospital operated the first and largest AIDS ward on the east coast, and for its place in the fabric of the city deserves a historical memorial in its own right. Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Edna St Vincent Millay took her name from there. Dylan Thomas died there. Survivors of the Titanic were treated there, as were many of the wounded of 9/11.

The Catholic-run hospital had always traditionally served the poor and the homeless of its diocese, many of whom later became the first victims of AIDS. It is the hospital depicted in Angels in America, one of the many forays into fiction that have attempted to process the plague years in New York. In the peak period of the epidemic, one third of St Vincent’s patients were people with AIDS.

Gay men in this neighbourhood in particular died in such quantities and at such speed that the mass return of rental apartments back onto the market at renewed value, and with no legal transfer allowed for any surviving gay partners, accelerated the gentrification that had already begun in Manhattan. Sarah Schulman neatly dissects the phenomenon in her book The Gentrification of the Mind, noting how New York’s most hyper-gentrified neighbourhoods ­­– the West Village and Chelsea amongst them – can be mapped onto traditional gay neighbourhoods. Not because gay men were unstoppable gentrifying forces, but because they were dying in such numbers there. 

A community effort to save St Vincent’s Hospital in the 2000s failed, its website gone, its Facebook page abandoned, and so the only extant hospital in Greenwich Village, rich in history, but ravaged by debt and mismanagement, was closed, and then in 2012 largely demolished. In its place has appeared a complex of condominiums and townhouses named The Greenwich Lane. Some of The Greenwich Lane buildings repurpose the original outer shells of the old hospital buildings, so that the new millionaire inhabitants may glance out of the very same window frames where many young people took a final longing look at their exhilarating city. ‘Live exactly where you want’, insists the condo sales slogan.

The developers of The Greenwich Lane are, of course, Rudin Management, builders of both the park and of the AIDS memorial. The overseer of the AIDS memorial jury was Michael Arad, designer of the World Trade Center Memorial.

*

Contained in this story of city planning and a new AIDS memorial, and melded into the bland aesthetics of the memorial itself, are a series of truths about AIDS that do the work which the memorial fails to do.  The tropes of the plague years and its aftermath remain intact. Restricted access to healthcare. A lack of municipal commitment (or even someone to water the vines). A lack of imagination for the ways that we have to reflect on trauma. Gentrification through death.

Author and activist David France wrote of the abandoned St Vincent’s Hospital prior to its destruction, ‘it is a museum, almost, a place haunted by Whitman’s “Carols of Death.”’ Whitman, whose own homosexuality has taken a century to be begrudgingly accepted but the simple fact of which (though he lived and died a patriot) ensures that he will probably never be recited at a Presidential inauguration, substitutes for the voice of an AIDS artist, of whom there were hundreds, as does the work of Jenny Holzer.

Much bolder might have been a tapestry of voices lost to AIDS, perhaps the rage-inscribed words of David Wojnarowicz, artist, AIDS activist, outlaw, (‘piece by piece, the landscape is eroding and in its place I am building a monument made of feelings of love and hate’), or Iris de la Cruz, sex worker and AIDS activist (‘Let’s get this straight: I hate this virus, and it’s this hatred and rage that keeps me going.’), or Vito Russo, AIDS activist and pioneering film writer, who gave perhaps the consummate speech from the trenches:

Someday, the AIDS crisis will be over. Remember that. And when that day has come and gone, there’ll be people alive on this earth, gay people and straight people, men and women, black and white, who will hear the story that once there was a terrible disease in this country and all over the world, and that a brave group of people stood up and fought and, in some cases, gave their lives, so that other people might live and be free.’

Instead, the dizzying crush of Walt Whitman’s verse which occupies the triangle, with its emotive buzz words splayed, fragmented and scattered in such a way that visitors have no choice but to experience at least some emotional resonance where the structure offers them none, does the work of memorialising via implied sentiment, instead of an adult reflection on loss. The AIDS memorial does not suitably attempt to consecrate memories and experiences of a generation and beyond. Instead it abstracts feeling into nothing at all. It is a simplification, a substitution, an act of homogenisation. In other words, it is the gentrification of memory. It contains no anger at the lack of accountability, a hallmark of suffering under HIV and AIDS. It contains no AIDS. As one anonymous commenter posted online, ‘This could be a monument to anything at all.’

Greg Thorpe is a writer, curator and artist living in Manchester. He is the Project Manager of Superbia, the programme of arts and culture from Manchester Pride, and works for Islington Mill, the independent artist community in Salford. His writing has appeared in Best British Short Stories, On Curating, Foglifter, Feast Journal and The Quietus. He also writes about contemporary art for The Fourdrinier. His art practice is entitled ‘A mile of black paper’ and focuses on HIV, AIDS, art and activism. You can find him here, here and on Twitter.

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