Waldo Rodriguez, Jeff McPherson, Barry Washington. Those were just three of the thousands of names read on Thursday honoring New Yorkers who have died of HIV/AIDS in the 35 years since the first reported case in the city. Their names were read during the dedication ceremony of the new AIDS Memorial in St. Vincent’s Triangle Park in the West Village.
Representatives of more than 70 HIV/AIDS and LGBTQ advocacy groups and hundreds of others attended the World AIDS Day ceremony, which featured speakers including Mayor Bill DeBlasio and Dr. Mary Bassett, the city’s health commissioner.
“I wanted to come out and show my support,” said Edie Dillard, an AIDS Healthcare Foundation worker. “It’s been a long time and 100,000 people have died in the past 35 years, so it’s [the memorial] long overdue.”
Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the world’s first and leading provider of HIV/AIDS prevention, care and advocacy, reports that since the outbreak of the virus in the early 1980s, more than 100,000 people have died from AIDS-related causes in New York City. HIV is the third leading cause of death for New York City residents aged 35-54, according to the group.
Until now there has been no visible or public memorial in New York City recognizing those who died during the epidemic, according to the New York City Aids Memorial Board.
“I think it was striking that New York City didn’t have an actual gathering place given that it’s the epicenter and right here among the hospitals that took care of people who experienced it,” said Ashley Cruce, who attended Thursday’s ceremony. “I think it was just long in coming and it was great that we had visionaries that wanted to have something here.”
The memorial itself is an 18-foot steel canopy that serves as a gateway into the new park. It was designed by Studio ai, an architectural company that has completed many projects in New York and across the country.
The memorial is next to the former location of St. Vincent’s Hospital, which hosted the city’s first and largest AIDS ward during the height of the epidemic.
Under its steel roof there is an infinity fountain. The ground is made of granite tiles, each inscribed with sections from Walt Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself.”
According to the New York City AIDS Memorial Board website, the total cost of the memorial, which includes its continual maintenance, was more than $6 million. The website states that more than $4 million came from state and city public sources while the remaining was collected through private donations.
Christopher Tepper, one of the founders of the memorial, touched on this in his speech, saying that efforts to build the memorial started with grassroots efforts. “We had no money and went around the Village knocking on people’s doors,” he said.
During his speech, New York City Council Member Corey Johnson, who was diagnosed with HIV in 2004, said the memorial is meant to serve not only as a reminder of all who lost their lives but also as a symbol of what he predicted will be a forthcoming fight against President-elect Donald Trump.
“This illegitimate man becoming our president, we have to stand up for ourselves,” he said. “We will not normalize him or the people he’s putting in government. We will stand up together.”
Graham Weinstein, who attended the ceremony, has been HIV positive for 25 years. He said the memorial is beautiful but also serves as a stinging reminder of what happened.
“I guess you could call this the ground zero of the epidemic and what we went through,” he said. “It brings back those memories and it gives me a chance to reflect and remember and be grateful to be here.”
To others, the memorial finally gives public acknowledgement to the disease because there are still more than 100,000 people currently living with HIV/AIDS in New York City, according to the 2015 HIV/AIDS Surveillance Report published by the New York State Department of Health.
“To me it symbolizes that it’s not staying quiet, it’s not being hidden,” said Betsy Kellerman, who traveled from St. Louis to attend the ceremony. “It’s out in the open and everybody has to acknowledge it and admit that it’s an issue.”
Final completion of the memorial is expected by late December and the park will be handed over to the care of the New York City Parks and Recreation Department in early 2017.