AIDS Garden Chicago: Tunney calls area ‘sacred ground’

The garden, just south of Belmont Harbor, is expected to open in the fall.

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Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) speaks at the groundbreaking Wednesday, June 2, 2021, for the AIDS Garden Chicago on the lakefront near Belmont Harbor.

Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) speaks at the groundbreaking Wednesday for the AIDS Garden Chicago on the lakefront near Belmont Harbor.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

If you were gay in Chicago of the 1970s, you could huddle in a bar behind papered-over windows and hope the police didn’t get wind of your clandestine activities.

But if you wanted to be free — or at least as free as gay people could be at that time — you might take a stroll over to an area known as “Belmont Rocks,” on the lakefront just south of the harbor.

“It was kind of a neglected area. No one wanted to be by the [nearby] rifle club,” recalled Ald. Tom Tunney [44th], who is openly gay.

It became a safe space for the LGBTQ community, but also a place where some came to scatter the ashes of loved ones taken by the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.

“I would argue Belmont Rocks is sacred ground,” Tunney said Wednesday, as he and a host of others, including Mayor Lori Lightfoot, broke ground on AIDS Garden Chicago. It is expected to open this fall.

When it’s complete, the 2.5-acre site will be home to a series of gardens designed for “reflection, education, honor and pride.” The focal point is the 30-foot-tall Keith Haring sculpture installed in late 2019 and titled “Self-Portrait.”

Lightfoot spoke about coming to the city in the mid-1980s — a time when she had yet to identify publicly as a lesbian. At the time, she was worried that her conservative, church-going parents might not accept her — and that she was destined to live a life of “isolation.”

But she said she found comfort and reassurance at Belmont Rocks.

“I marveled at the number of people who were there, the multiple races coming together,” she said. “Also the couples that were together and were happy and it made me have confidence that I could actually have a fulfilled life, a life with a partner ... .”

Lightfoot also praised the activists of the 1980s and ’90s, who, she said, demanded that government do more to help those sickened and dying from HIV/AIDS.

“Without that activism, I wouldn’t be standing here as your mayor of Chicago,” she said.

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