Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

Water set to return to AIDS grove


AIDS grove Executive Director John Cunningham, left, grove co-founder Alice Russell-Shapiro and former San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos break ground on restoring a waterfall in the AIDS memorial. (Photo: David Duran)
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Water is set to start flowing again through the National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.

Overseers of the landscaped dell have broken ground on the restoration of one of the original 100-year-old Victorian waterfalls, known as the "Falls," in the public open space. At one time the area originally known as the De Laveaga Dell included three waterfalls cascading into a creek at its western boundary, according to grove officials.

 Today there is only one remaining waterfall and the adjoining Dry Creek. Family and friends of Frances McCormick, a mechanical engineer for the city who specialized in the improvement of public water systems, spearheaded the revival of the aquatic feature.

 McCormick died on April 25, 2010 while scuba diving in the waters of Monterey Bay. Her wife and daughter, Lisa and Isabel Cohn, visited the grove to remember McCormick and decided to help restore the waterfall as a tribute to her.

The restoration project, a partnership with the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, is located in the western end of the grove in the Circle of Peace. It is the culmination of a long-awaited goal of returning water to the memorial.

A ceremonial groundbreaking took place Saturday, September 17 during a ceremony that marked the grove's 20th anniversary. Joining hundreds of volunteers and community leaders for the ceremony were former San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos and grove co-founder Alice Russell-Shapiro.

Both presided over the original 1991 launch of the grove, which is located at the corner of Middle and Bowling Green drives.

"We stood together here 20 years ago in what was basically an unwanted part of this park to break ground for what has become a hallowed place," recalled Agnos. "It's also a delight for me to stand with outstanding young public officials who carry on and do even better than those of us who started back in the day and carry cudgels of social justice of what is right for everyone in the community and the state."

Each year on September 17, known as Founders Day at the Grove, volunteers gather to reflect, heal, and remember all those whose lives have been touched by AIDS. On the volunteer day, workers plant trees, shrubs and assist with the maintenance of the grounds.

Preceding this year's ceremony, volunteers and friends gathered to form a large circle, holding hands, and recited names of friends and loved ones lost to the AIDS epidemic. Twenty years ago, 1-in-25 San Franciscans were living with HIV and 1-in-50 had an AIDS diagnosis.

"On this day, 20 years ago, this space was completely different from what it looks like today," said John Cunningham, the grove's executive director. "This space was very similar to what was going on in the San Francisco community. It was devastated, had lost hope and needed life. And over the past 20 years, this space has been transformed."

The grove was designated the National AIDS Memorial Grove in 1996, in large measure because of the leadership of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco). President Bill Clinton signed the bill creating the grove into law, which elevated the greenspace to be of the same stature as the nations' other 43 federally designated memorials.

Pelosi was unable to attend last weekend's event but recently participated in a community volunteer workday at the grove with her grandchildren. In a statement, Pelosi said the grove's significance is similar to that of Mount Rushmore and recognizes the leadership countless San Franciscans provided over the last 30 years toward combating the AIDS epidemic.

"We have all been here pulling weeds and planting trees, dedicating names in the Circle of Friends, looking out over pink umbrellas and observing World AIDS Day, but we have always been here with mixed emotions," stated Pelosi. "With deep sadness over those who we have lost but also with the great spirit of renewal that only something like the grove can bring about fresh new life coming forth."   

The wooded haven is the only federally designated AIDS memorial in the country. What once was a run down swamp area of the park is now one of the most beautiful and important areas of Golden Gate Park, boast grove supporters. Over the past two decades, 18,000 individuals have contributed over 120,000 volunteer hours to convert the park and maintain it.

Newer volunteer Mark Huebmer, who was introduced to the community workday events through the Bears of San Francisco, said he pitches in to maintain the grove because "it's a service to the community, which is important so that people have a place to go and it helps the park look nice as well."

Construction on the Falls is expected to last through the end of the year. Water is slated to return to the rock-lined streambed by early winter; a celebration is being planned to mark the occasion.

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