Quiet Place to Remember Lost Friends

December 1, 2008 at 6:45 pm Leave a comment

At 4 o’clock on Sunday morning, Andrew Marber was wide awake, thinking of his past and the people who populated it. He got out of bed and pulled out two address books, his own and another, a small, overflowing black book that had belonged to his late companion. He flipped through the two books until he was satisfied he’d written down all the names of the close friends who had died of AIDS in the late ’80s and ’90s: Richard Blumenkranz, Ronnie Fox, Don Green, and so on, until there were 10 names on a small white piece of paper.

Back then, like so many people who lived in the West Village, Mr. Marber spent almost every weekend attending one memorial service or another, if not for a close friend, then for a familiar neighborhood face. There were the somber ceremonies in chapels and the ones with musical performances and the one with a display of a fantastic hat collection belonging to the deceased — that was the most painful service, the one for his own partner, Drew Jewett, who died in 1994.

Mr. Marber didn’t know it at the time, but that same year, Lawrence Swehla, a New York City schoolteacher, decided that the city should have a permanent public outdoor AIDS memorial. He started holding meetings to establish a monument that would pay tribute to the community’s collective sense of loss.

Right about now you may be trying to remember where that AIDS memorial ended up — somewhere in Central Park? Did you walk by it once in Battery Park and take a picture with that friend from out of town? Did they end up putting it somewhere in Union Square?

UNLIKELY as it seems, until this week, New York City, long considered the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic in this country, had no such memorial in place.

Monuments lend themselves most naturally to finitude, a luxury that Mr. Swehla’s cause didn’t have, and still doesn’t. The lack of a cure and the number of people still suffering — 90,000 New Yorkers live with H.I.V. — made fund-raising for an abstract symbol a sensitive task for Mr. Swehla: Letters asked donors to give, but not if it meant they would limit their donations to research.

And Mr. Swehla quickly learned that erecting a monument, even one with passion and momentum behind it, is a considerable challenge. The city started by giving Mr. Swehla a list of every park in New York where his group shouldn’t even think of trying to put one. And then they were on their own, scouring the streets for fitting locations, and trying to raise money.

Month after month, Mr. Swehla and his team, a nonprofit group called the AIDS Monument Committee, met to strategize; logistical glitches surfaced, were surmounted and then resurfaced. The organization’s treasurer died of AIDS just a few years after the project started, and a few years later, another board member, Michael LaPlaca, lost his partner to the same disease.

By 2003, when Mr. Marber first heard of the project and decided to get involved, the enthusiasm of the earlier crowds had faded, and only a handful of board members kept attending the monthly meetings.

Late Sunday morning, Mr. Marber joined Mr. Swehla and three other board members at a spot in Hudson River Park near the end of Bank Street where Pier 46 used to extend into the water. In the steady, cold rain, the four men and one woman huddled in hats, holding umbrellas.

“It started like a cruise, and ended like a shipwreck,” said Michael Sypulski, an artist who joined the efforts early on. “There’s just a few of us straggling on shore.”

Bedraggled or not, all five were beaming, Mr. Swehla most of all. In front of him, a semicircular balcony hung gracefully over the water. Behind him, on a green knoll, a footpath curved around, with a 42-foot black granite bench echoing its curve. Inscribed in the granite were words thought to originate in a Scandinavian folk song: “I can sail without wind; I can sail without oars. But I cannot part from my friend without tears.”

From the bench, a visitor could look out on the water, or contemplate the pilings where the pier used to be, a memory, for some, of liberated if debauched times, a metaphorical reminder, for others, of loss and absence — a ruin.

In 2005, the Hudson River Park Trust offered the site, and a year later, Scott Stringer, the Manhattan borough president, set aside $40,000 for the monument’s construction. On Sunday, the day before World AIDS Day, 30 or so people, mostly men, gathered under a tent and watched the dedication of the memorial. State Senator Thomas K. Duane spoke, Mr. Swehla offered thanks, and the Rev. Pat Bumgardner, pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church on the West Side, gave a blessing as heads bowed.

The dedication started at 12:30, but an hour earlier, Mr. Marber had already caught a glimpse of what the memorial might come to mean in the landscape of New York. In the rain, a lone man had made his way to the bench, and had walked slowly down its length, his hand dragging along its surface as he moved.

Mr. Marber’s own silent tribute sat in his pocket: that small scrap of paper with the 10 names he’d written down that morning. “I wanted to keep them close by,” he said.

By SUSAN DOMINUS
New York Times

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Entry filed under: Go Coastal, Manhattan, Public Waterfront. Tags: , .

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