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Thursday, September 11, 2014

The National AIDS Memorial Grove Has Been Vandalized: Director John D. Cunningham Gives Us Details

Posted By on Thu, Sep 11, 2014 at 7:37 AM

click to enlarge AIDS MEMORIAL GROVE
  • AIDS Memorial Grove
Twenty-three years ago this month, the National AIDS Memorial Grove was founded as a site of healing for a community rocked by crisis. Along with New York, San Francisco was the city most affected by the epidemic, and in the years since, locals and tourists, straight and gay, have come to the Grove’s Circle of Friends to reflect on all the lives lost.

The Grove has, in one board member’s words, a “spiritual patina” to it. So it’s with sadness and anger that we learned that it has been repeatedly vandalized. I spoke with John D. Cunningham, Executive Director of the National AIDS Memorial Grove, about the extent and nature of the attacks, and how the organization plant to restore this corner of Golden Gate Park.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What’s the state of the memorial? Is it getting routinely vandalized in the same way?

Over the 23 years, we’ve never faced anything like this. There’ve bee little incidents, tagging and the like, especially around 4/20. However, during the month of August, there were two significant incidents of vandalism perpetrated upon the memorial, with [damage to] horticulture ranging from redwoods to redbuds to Japanese maples to magnolias to rhododendrons. Many of those were memorial trees planted in memory of lost loved ones. That is what occurred on the 14th of August.

On the 25th, at approximately 5 a.m., a San Francisco Rec and Park employee was riding his bike up Bowling Green Drive past the heart of the Grove, and heard quite a commotion. He called Park Patrol, who responded in a very rapid fashion, but by the time they arrived on the scene the damage was done and the perpetrator was nowhere to be found. I received a call from our gardener at 7 a.m., and immediately texted Phil Ginsberg, the manager of Rec and Park. He and I met at the Grove along with Capt. Silverman of the Richmond Station, and took a tour to assess what we were dealing with. It was heart-wrenching and devastating to see the damage that was done. Memorial benches, dedicated and paid for in memory of lost loved ones, [along with] the engravings on two of them, were obliterated. The vandal also inflicted his aggression upon the heart of the Grove, within the Circle of Friends, using round river rocks to throw onto the stone, and damaging, to varying degrees, upwards of 65 names.

Was it a homophobic act of vandalism?

I want to be very, very clear. There is nothing that leads us to believe that this is homophobic, or that this is directed towards HIV/AIDS. The individual who is suspected of this has perpetrated similar acts upon the Arboretum and the Conservatory [of Flowers], as well as upon McLaren Lodge itself.

This is obviously an individual who has significant mental health issues, as well as potentially significant substance abuse issues. There have been attacks in the surrounding areas. We have been in contact with both SFPD and the City District Attorney’s office. If the individual is apprehended, and there is any evidence that this may have been [homophobic], then we will follow this forward and go after hate crimes.

What’s it going to cost to fix?

At the present time, the low end is $100,000-$125,000, and the high end, which would be having to do a full replacement of the Circle of Friends, would be $1 million. Anyone who’s spent time in the Grove knows it’s a hallowed ground, a spiritual space that’s had countless memorial services, countless World AIDS Days. So the organization is looking at whether or not doing a full replacement of that space is the right direction to go in. We’re blessed to have the same stone engraver that’s been with us for 23 years. The benches will need to have their end caps replaced, but that’s not difficult. And all the horticulture that’s been damaged will have to be removed.

So are you actively soliciting donations to help get the restoration underway?

Undoubtedly, there are significant costs associated with it. We’re working with the city to see where the responsibility lies, from an insurance perspective. People have asked what they can do to get involved. On Sept. 20, we’ll have our annual Founder’s Day Volunteer Appreciation Workday in the Grove starting at 9 a.m., and individuals can come and help provide for the Memorial what it has provided for so many others, which is the opportunity to help heal it. Obviously, [we welcome] donations of support. But I’ve also encouraged people just to go ahead and visit their Grove.

Is the damage so extensive that visitors who don’t know about it might be taken aback when they see it?

Not necessarily. The benches, yes, it’s very clear they’ve been attacked. But within the Circle of Friends, it’s aged, it has natural wear-and-tear just as anything would. To the naked eye, depending on the time of day or if the sprinklers have been on, to just a casual visitor, they may not [appear damaged]. But we’ve got to look at every single name that’s been hit, and realize that that is somebody’s loved one.

Is there anything the Park Patrol or the SFPD is doing to make sure this doesn’t keep happening?

All I can say is that I’ve lived in San Francisco for a very long time, and I’ve had positive and not-so-positive [professional] dealings with the SFPD, but I’ve never seen such a response to a situation such as this — which is a violent act, but it’s not a violent act to another human. They’ve increased patrols in the area. I’ve met with Supervisor Wiener last week, and we’re trying to work together with Rec and Park to ensure that the Park Patrol, which is grossly underfunded and -staffed, is given the necessary funds.

Especially in the eastern part of Golden Gate Park (where there is the most significant investment in infrastructure, in the billions of dollars associated with the deYoung Museum and the Academy of Sciences) that we are able to ensure there’s a dedicated officer in that area after-hours. It’s also the area most closely situated to [residential neighborhoods] as well as to a fairly significant area of homeless youth. So I think it’s important that the regulations, which state that the Grove is closed after six o’clock, are followed.
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About The Author

Pete Kane

Pete Kane

Pete Kane is a total gaylord who is trying to get to every national park before age 40

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