AIDS Garden Chicago dedicated along lakefront to honor those who died from disease
“We must never forget those we’ve lost,” said Yoni Pizer, board chair for AIDS Garden Chicago.
For years many members of the city’s gay community gathered along the waterfront near what became known as the Belmont Rocks — large graffiti-covered stones that created a breakwall against Lake Michigan.
It was a safe space for thousands — many who later died during the AIDS pandemic that swept through the community in the 80s and 90s.
On Thursday, more than 200 people gathered near the spot for the dedication of AIDS Garden Chicago, a 2.5-acre park built to honor the dead and those who worked to ease their suffering.
State Rep. Greg Harris is gay and has lived with AIDS since 1990, despite being told by doctors over the years that he had only months to live.
“It was a death sentence,” said Harris, who choked up remembering the lives of friends who died before better treatments became available.
The new park, just south of Belmont Harbor, features Ginkgo trees, a paved walkway and a 30-foot sculpture designed by the late activist and artist Keith Haring, who died of AIDS. There are also stanchions throughout with QR codes that link to the stories of Chicagoans who were affected by AIDS.
The Belmont Rocks were replaced in 2003 by a concrete wall to help fight lake erosion.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Thursday recalled how spending time there in the 80s helped her embrace the notion of living openly and happily as a lesbian in a big city.
The feeling was tempered by a sense of helplessness as she watched the AIDS pandemic take its toll.
“How could this be happening and the government was ignoring how this was devastating our community and particularly gay men all across the country? And the level of hatred that we heard being spewed by people, that this was God’s will, that he was invoking his wrath on us because of our lifestyle, well things are different and some things are not,” she said.
Lightfoot noted the hard-fought wins by the LGBTQ community and the effort by some conservative politicians to roll them back.
“History repeats itself,” added Harris. “We know that all these hard-fought rights, these advancements in our society and culture can be gone in an instant if we are not constantly vigilant and we each do our part.”
Gov. J.B. Pritzker called the park “hallowed grounds” and said he took pride in his participation in joining members of the gay community in their fight for equal rights, as well as the state’s contribution of $1.5 million toward making AIDS Garden Chicago a reality.
The park was created through a collaboration between public officials, neighborhood organizations, private foundations and community members, said Yoni Pizer, board chair for AIDS Garden Chicago.
“We must never forget those we’ve lost, never forget the forces of hate and indifference which decimated our community, never forget those who cared for our friends and family when they were abandoned ... and never forget those brave individuals who acted up,” Pizer said.