Turning public places into mourning spaces

If New York’s prospective AIDS memorial park is anything to go by, it seems 9/11 now infuses everything in this city.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Politics

In Greenwich Village, New York, a triangular lot opposite the former St Vincent’s Hospital may soon be transformed into a memorial park honouring the 100,000 New Yorkers who have died of AIDS. A Catholic hospital established more than 150 years ago, St Vincent’s closed in 2010 after years of financial and hygienic challenges. Having treated victims of the 1849 cholera epidemic, the sinking of the Titanic, the 1980s ‘AIDS plague’ and the 9/11 attack, St Vincent’s passing inspired some nostalgic tributes. Now, many apparently feel that using the lot to commemorate some of the patients it cared for will go some way towards making up for its transformation from poor man’s haven to luxury residence.

St Vincent’s housed New York’s first AIDS ward at a time when there was a great deal of fearmongering about the disease and misinformation about how it could spread. In the early 1980s, a number of homosexual men were diagnosed with a new, unknown syndrome that was first thought to be a form of cancer, but was later identified as AIDS. Eventually, it became clear that the underlying problem of so-called ‘gay cancer’ was, in fact, immune deficiency and that it could affect heterosexuals and children, too.

With the thirtieth anniversary of the outbreak of AIDS coming up, a coalition of urban designers and AIDS awareness activists launched the New York City AIDS Memorial Park competition. A jury, chaired by the National September 11 Memorial designer Michael Arad, has picked the winning design: ‘Infinite Forest’, by Brooklyn-based studio a+i.

‘Infinite Forest’, studio a+1’s winning design in the AIDS Memorial Park competition.

In many ways, Infinite Forest resembles the 9/11 memorial that opened last year in time for the 10-year anniversary of the attack on the Twin Towers. It resembles it not only in look, but also in the way it compels New Yorkers to remember, and to cohere around, tragedy and loss. Like the 9/11 memorial, the proposed AIDS Memorial Park invites us to experience a tragedy – not literally, of course, but through interactions with the memorial itself. And the hope is that this interaction will inspire solidarity and compassion.

Now, the similarities between the 9/11 and AIDS memorials are to an extent in the eye of the beholder. Personally, the 9/11 memorial immediately sprang to mind when I saw the images of a+i’s entry – before I had read anything about the ideas behind the design, before I had seen St Vincent’s referred to as the ‘ground zero of the AIDS epidemic’, and before I knew that Arad had headed up the competition jury. Nevertheless, whether uncanny or actual, there are some striking resemblances.

Studio a+i’s design uses three mirrored walls along each side of the triangular space. The mirrors enclose a park with birch trees, creating the impression of an ‘infinite forest’. A basement below the park will house a learning centre and along the sidewalks three slate-clad walls will form a mural where visitors can write messages in chalk that will only remain until the rain washes them away. The site will also have a bookstore and a café. The park is meant to honour not just victims of AIDS but also those who ‘responded heroically to the crisis’.

The National September 11 Memorial, at the site where the Twin Towers stood in New York’s Financial District, is an ‘eco-friendly plaza’. Benches, strolling paths and more than 400 white oak trees surround two massive pools around which are inscribed the names of the victims. Below the plaza, there is a museum and a store with books and memorabilia. Many visitors who lost loved ones on 9/11 use paper and pencils to trace the etchings of their names. The site honours those who died in the towers and the heroic efforts of the firemen who tried to rescue people from the wreckage – many of whom died or were injured.

The trees, the oasis atmosphere, the name-tracing and chalk-scrawling, the underground education facilities, the honouring of victims and heroic rescuers… There are many physical and conceptual resemblances between the two memorials.

Of course, there’s nothing unusual or wrong about designers being inspired by one another. What’s more significant is that both sites are also monuments to a shifting attitude towards the past and ways to deal with it – and, in America, 9/11 has become a kind of guide for how to do that.

It seems organisers of the competition acknowledge this. They seem to want to draw a direct line between the 9/11 and AIDS memorials. In a video launching the competition, co-founder Paul Kelterborn explained that the hope was to inspire the kind of ‘city-wide discussion’ that took place during the design process after 9/11 and so he was pleased to have Michael Arad on board. One of the judges, fashion designer Kenneth Cole, also mentioned 9/11 and the ‘groundswell’ of support for a memorial honouring those who died. It is only right, then, Cole suggested, that the city should have a memorial honouring those who have died from AIDS. He said New York needs an AIDS memorial.

But, in fact, New York already has one – a bench in Hudson River Park that was installed in 2008, the twentieth anniversary of World AIDS Day. There is also a ‘People with AIDS Plaza’ near City Hall in lower Manhattan. So, why does New York need another, bigger memorial for the thirtieth anniversary of World AIDS Day, and one that is right by the so-called ‘ground zero’ of the AIDS outbreak?

Certainly, it has to do with sympathy for AIDS victims and a desire to stop the spread of the disease. But it also has to do with a post-9/11 mentality, according to which we don’t move on despite difficult events, so much as continue living with them. As a result, we turn public spaces into formal memorial locations, rather than places of pure leisure. Today, a bench, a street name, a plaque or a statue apparently won’t do as a memorial. Instead commemorations like the 9/11 plaza and the AIDS Memorial Park take up entire public spaces at a time when, as Ron Arad points out, opportunities to design public spaces in New York are rare.

We are not meant just to visit these memorial spaces, or to leave a flower or note by them. Instead, we are meant to live and interact with them. But no matter how pretty or calming, these spaces are restrictive. They are, after all, geared towards remembrance and honouring – and certain kinds of behaviour are, if not formally then at least informally, imposed in spaces dedicated to dead people.

The echoes of 9/11 within the proposed AIDS Memorial Park suggest that that horrific day a decade ago has become a kind of barometer of grief and fragility and its ostentatious memorial has become a model for official commemoration. The desire to show solidarity with fellow New Yorkers is commendable. What’s worrisome about the 9/11 model of grief and commemoration, though, is that it doesn’t really favour understanding as much as emotion. Whether it’s the rapid spread of AIDS in the 1980s, the terrorist attack in 2001 or any other historical incident, what it all meant, what caused it and how to prevent it in the future become kind of blurred, as unifying around our emotional response to tragedy becomes the primary purpose of commemoration.

Nathalie Rothschild is an international correspondent for spiked. Visit her personal website here. Follow her on Twitter @n_rothschild.

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Topics Politics


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