By Kendra Sitton
Uptown Planners approved the creation of Olive Street Park to go forward at its April 2 meeting as the fight continues over whether the site will hold an AIDS memorial. The motion for the park passed 10-3 despite loud opposition from some board members and a neighbor who announced she is suing the city to keep the section of the property she has incorporated into her yard.
The proposed AIDS memorial, which would honor the 8,000 San Diego victims of the AIDS epidemic and give their friends and families a place to pay them respects, was not included in the presentation by the developers of the site. This led some board members to oppose the park entirely because the memorial will likely be included in a second permit that will not need to come before the community planning board for approval.
Member Amie Hayes accused the city of purposefully using the permit process to keep Uptown Planners from having input on the AIDS memorial, which some worry would create foot traffic and crowding in Bankers Hill. She said the city is trying to bifurcate the projects to get around their work to oppose the memorial at the Olive Street Park.
Hayes is the author of a MoveOn petition to block the AIDS memorial from the Olive Street Park site. Since it launced in 2017, it has gained 36 signatures.
However, an effort she led to send a letter to city officials demanding a proposed memorial come before the committee for approval failed to pass by one vote while four members chose to abstain.
The fight over Olive Street Park in Bankers Hill is just the latest speed bump in the decades-long push to bring an AIDS memorial to San Diego.
The most recent iteration of that effort is led by longtime LGBT activist Nicole Murray Ramirez, AIDS activist Susan Jester and San Diego’s first lady Katherine Stuart Faulconer, who together co-chair the AIDS Memorial Task Force. Their work was bolstered by the sale of the Truax House, the first AIDS hospice in San Diego. Assembly member Todd Gloria spearheaded an effort to tie the proceeds of that real estate sale to the development of Olive Street Park, including an AIDS memorial. The Olive Street property was donated to the city in 1908 to create a park but the 0.69-acre lot has laid idle for more than a century as it awaits full funding.
According to Jester, the task force was already turned down by five other potential memorial sites, including Balboa Park.
“I believe Olive Street Park is an entirely appropriate place for an AIDS memorial … We wanted to pick a place where someone could come and sit and reflect pray or meditate in honor of loved one,” Jester said.
The task force developed the idea of a quiet park setting for the memorial based on feedback from loved ones of the disease’s victims. Ramirez said he fielded emotional phone calls for years from people who wanted a place where they could honor someone who passed in the epidemic.
“We went through the AIDS epidemic. We lost hundreds of friends. We saw people who wouldn’t pick up their children’s ashes, funeral homes wouldn’t take their bodies. There were so many awful things that happened in the AIDS epidemic that people today don’t know about,” Jester said.
One idea mentioned at the Uptown Planners meeting was placing the memorial at the recently approved Normal Street Promenade. Jester said she believes this is more in an effort to fund the promenade with the proceeds of the Truax House sale than to properly honor AIDS victims.
“Some folks saw dollar signs because they need to fund the promenade as well. Put a plaque up on the promenade and we’ll get a million and a half bucks,” Jester said. She said the memorial should be a place for people to come, be quiet and be reflective in an outdoor setting that provides people the privacy of their thoughts. “I don’t see that happening at a promenade.”
“Because of the money attached to this AIDS memorial, people want it at Hillcrest,” Ramirez said. While Ramirez and Jester did not know the exact details of Gloria’s deal with City Council, they both remember the funding from the Truax House being tied to the Olive Street Park, not to an AIDS memorial that can be placed anywhere in San Diego.
Jester said there is nothing limiting the number of AIDS memorials in San Diego to one. However, if the plaque is located underneath the Pride flag as mentioned, she said it will undo decades of work to break the stereotype of AIDS being referred to as a “gay” disease. According to Ramirez, the task force is intentionally working to include all victims of AIDS as well as the women who often served as caregivers for victims.
Jester said if a plaque were placed on Normal Street, it would not be a quiet place to sit and lay flowers for someone on their birthday or the day they passed, as many victims’ loved ones have requested.
“The worst place I can think of to put an AIDS memorial is the middle of Normal Street on a promenade,” Jester said.
Another objection to the Olive Street Park site is that at less than an acre, it is too small to hold a “regional” memorial that could accommodate people from across the county. The opposition has seized on this designation of “regional” as a way to oppose the memorial on the basis that it conflicts with San Diego’s general plan.
However, the task force is pushing back on that language. “We never called it a regional memorial. All we wanted was this to be a marker to remember those who’d passed,” Ramirez said. “There can be an AIDS memorial anywhere. This is not the regional memorial — just a beautiful marker with people’s names, the story of AIDS and AIDS organizations.”
Ramirez and Jester also said misinformation is being spread about the park holding large events. They think people are imagining it like the Vietnam Memorial, while they said in reality, the memorial would be much smaller and would not attract huge crowds. Jester said only about 100 people come to the annual World AIDS Day event in Hillcrest.
“I and others just want it [the AIDS memorial] somewhere so people could come and remember… it got so bad that at one of the meetings, one of the [neighbors] stood up there and said ‘I don’t want those ashes flying in the air,’” Ramirez said. “It’s been a very emotional, heartbreaking thing for me.”
More than 8,000 people died from AIDS in San Diego, but Jester and Ramirez contend not all of those names will be included in the memorial because it could open them up to lawsuits.
“A lot of folks who have relatives who’ve died of AIDS don’t necessarily want to be identified as having a gay son or drug addict daughter,” Jester said. “They [the opposition] think there’s gonna be masses of people there which there are not … I don’t see hundreds of people.”
Ramirez said Olive Street Park would be a meaningful location because of where the funds for the park came from and because a children’s playground will be next to it.
“The Truax House was sacred ground for us,” he said. Ramirez said that hearing children playing closeby would also be a reminder that life goes on.
According to Jester, out of the top 10 largest cities in the U.S., San Diego is the only one without an AIDS memorial.
— Reach Kendra Sitton at firstname.lastname@example.org.