Protected from the hustle and bustle of city life and within San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, sits a memorial of LGBTQ+ activism and a broader coalition fighting against ostracization and silence in the face of the AIDS epidemic in the United States. A natural ravine and soaring redwood trees make a living memorial. They stand resolute and unwavering, turning the silence once faced, into an environment of solace, contemplation, and remembrance. This is the National AIDS Memorial Grove. 

Setting the Scene for Space Creation and LGBTQ+ Activism

Although not exclusively affecting the LGBTQ+ community, the HIV/AIDS epidemic started in the 1980s and it went largely unmitigated by the federal government as a result of homophobia and hate as its largest group of affected, those within the LGBTQ+ community, were viewed as sinning and on some level, getting what was deserved. This pervasive hate and silencing by both society and the government makes the creation of this memorial not only a space of resistance for LGBTQ+ activism but one of resiliency. 

Unlike most memorials which are created after the fact, the AIDS Memorial Grove was conceived of in the early years of the epidemic in the United States. As San Franciscans lost more than 11,000 of their community in the first decade of the crisis, a group of six San Franciscans, specializing in urban-environmental and landscape design convened to imagine a space that would allow them to collectively mourn friends and family lost to AIDS-related complications (The Avery Review | Memory Work: The Dilemma of the National AIDS Memorial Grove, n.d.). Primarily utilizing community workdays to bring the memorial grove into reality, the act of creation became a community event: bringing people together and exercising grief through physically reworking the landscape. 

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Community Volunteer Workdays at the National AIDS Memorial Grove _©Community Work Day, n.d.)

Initial Design

The design for the Memorial Grove is conceived as a series of gathering spaces dictated by the natural features of the topography and vegetation. The AIDS Memorial Grove has a ravine as a backbone whose babbling brook carves out a narrow valley and lowers you from the road—leaving traffic and the street behind—immersing you within small shrubs and flowers. This releases you into a grassy field which expands your view among surrounding trees and plants—creating a protected environment—reminiscent of cupped hands of support and tranquility. This central, oblong meadow has set the scene for healing circles with participants holding hands and saying the names of lost loved ones or those suffering from AIDS (Gamson, 2018).

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Healing Circle at the Meadow (Every volunteer work day at the AIDS Memorial Grove ends with a healing circle where participants link hands and say the names of loved ones lost to AIDS_©

Although nearly absent of a typical archetype of architecture, this constructed landscape is both shaped and continuously reworked in an act of LGBTQ+ activism by community members to preserve its image and the memories of those lost. This is additionally done through the inclusion of landscape design, benches, memorial pavers, and plaques that dot the landscape. 

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Master Plan of the Grove (The Masterplan for the NAMG, n.d.)_©

Purpose and Shifting Needs

Focused as a tool for personal, community, and traumatic mourning, its adoption as a national and international memorial of AIDS memory has both expanded access and introduced conflicts for its initial LGBTQ+ activism founding.

With its shift towards the national and international stage for remembrance, as a result of the National AIDS Grove Act of 1996, there were implications for the LGBTQ+ community it represents. Historically, the Grove in San Francisco represented a gay memorial that centered on white male mourning of the middle and upper classes, with much of the LGBTQ+ activism focusing on this group of affected. 

In expanding its resonance and support of the larger AIDS-affected community, there is a risk of flattening the complex and multiple memories that are experienced. the Grove’s governing board has sought to respond to this complexity through the inclusion of more overt tellings of the story with signs and art installations. 

This led to a design competition with a brief that stated the following: “For many supporters of the Grove, the need for a signature memorial element—a physical manifestation of the status designated by Congress that would broaden the Grove’s power to address the national and global impact of AIDS—came to the fore” (Schwartz and Cabra, 2005). The competition garnered international attention and resulted in over 200 submissions. The winning design was by Janette Kim and Chloe Town and was entitled “Living Memorial”. It included a charred wood viewing deck that oversaw a stand of black fiber rods with mirrored tips that reflected the sky and evoked burnt trees (Gamson, 2018).

Rendering for Living Memorial by Janette Kim and Chloe Town_©

Vocal public outcry led to a stop of the competition and resulted in the Grove committee voting against the final design. Critics of the winning entry felt that the Memorial Grove was perfect as is, and rather than constructing a landscape that initially made visitors feel uncomfortable and confront visuals of death, the Grove should focus on its original intent of building comfort and collective space for gathering and remembrance (Rona Marech, 2005). In this sense, the continual questioning of the purpose of the Grove has brought it back to its original LGBTQ+ activism.

Persistence of Activism

In addition to the challenges the Grove has faced in response to evolving, it faces problems with funding. Constructed with the support of the community and their labor, its development into a national monument didn’t bring federal funding. This lack of support illustrates the continual struggle and LGBTQ+ activism that is tied to the site as it still demands volunteer and community support to maintain it. This demonstrates that the fight for spaces of remembrance for marginalized communities isn’t given, but must continue to be fought for because, in complacency, historical and meaningful action and advancements will be lost or once again attempted to be erased through lack of support to back-up performative actions.


Community Work Day (n.d.). Available at:

Every volunteer work day at the AIDS Memorial Grove ends with a healing circle where participants link hands and say the names of loved ones lost to AIDS (n.d.). Available at:

Gamson J (2018) “The Place That Holds Our Stories”: The National AIDS Memorial Grove and Flexible Collective Memory Work. Social Problems 65(1): 33–50.

Google Docs (n.d.) 6.22.22 The Story Behind the National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco_.pdf. Available at: (accessed 17 December 2023).

Janette Kim and Chloe Town (2005) Rendering from Living Memorial. Available at:

KQED (2022) The Story Behind the National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco. Available at: (accessed 17 December 2023).

Rona Marech (2005) SAN FRANCISCO / Stark but hopeful AIDS memorial / Not everyone sold on artwork set for Golden Gate Park. SFGATE, 25 March. Available at:

Schwartz NJZ and Cabra R (2005) Emergent Memory: The National AIDS Memorial Competition. San Francisco, Calif.: National AIDS Memorial Grove.

The Avery Review | Memory Work: The Dilemma of the National AIDS Memorial Grove (n.d.). Available at: (accessed 17 December 2023).

The Masterplan for the NAMG (n.d.). Available at:


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