Governor Pritzker, Mayor Lightfoot and an array of other elected officials, community leaders and artists gathered lakeside for a celebration Thursday morning.
They marked the opening of AIDS Garden Chicago, a multi-year project that is now open to the public. Located just south of Belmont Harbour, the garden’s location holds an important place in the history of the city’s queer community.
“We pay tribute to the myriad of fallen heroes who have opened the doors of every closet everywhere. Whether in stilettos or combat boots, children have thrived,” said playwright and poet Osiris Khepera during of an oral performance.
The ribbon cutting marked the end of a long journey for AIDS Garden Chicago. It’s an idea that Alderman Tom Tunney started talking about during his first term in the early 2000s.
“A lot of people here have been in the trenches for, God bless, 40 years,” Tunney said, acknowledging many activists and defenders in the crowd.
The effort began in earnest when Tunney pitched the idea to the nonprofit Chicago Parks Foundation, which helps raise money for city parks and programs.
“Everyone jumped in and embraced this project because it’s so special,” said general manager Willa Lang. “This is a legacy project for the parks and the city.”
The first step was community meetings in Lakeview which then spread to other parts of Chicago.
“HIV/AIDS affects many communities in many parts of the city, so we made an effort to move our meetings around the city and speak with different people so that we got their feedback as well,” Lang said.
The entrance to the garden features a donor wall with gingko leaves, a symbol chosen for its beauty and resilience. A group of gingkos and an area by the lake with a view of the sunrise provide a space: “to reflect and gather… and to remember those who have passed away, those who have survived and those who still live today. living with HIV/AIDS,” said Lang.
The centerpiece of the garden is the massive Keith Haring “Self-Portrait” statue. Around the garden, QR codes direct visitors to videos of survivors, activists, doctors, and more.
The stories highlight the history of the AIDS epidemic in Chicago. And the location of the garden was also chosen for its historical significance.
It’s the former site of the Belmont Rocks, a lakeside limestone expanse where Chicago’s LGBTQ community began congregating in the 1960s.
“Can you imagine how empowering it must have been to be able to come here during the day, in the middle of town, in the sun, to be with your friends or your lover or whoever it was at a time when our bars had blacked out windows again?’ said queer author and historian Owen Keehnen.
Keehnen moved to Chicago in the early 1980s and remembers his first visit vividly.
“When I got to this ridge, what I saw was something I had never seen before…this queer organic space that was thriving,” Keehnen said.
The rocks were demolished in 2003 as part of a shoreline revetment project. After posting on social media about the loss of the rocks a few years ago, Keehnen received an outpouring of people sharing memories and photographs of sunny days. He collected and shared them online for the A Place for Us: LGBTQ Life at the Belmont Rocks project.
“The Belmont Rocks were part of our everyday history, which in some ways is so much more relatable,” Keehnen said. “As LGBTQ people, that’s the kind of thing it’s our responsibility to tell…no one else will do it for us.”
It is also a joyful story. Keehnen says the boulders provided a sunny contrast to the fluorescent lighting of the hospitals where so many Chicagoans spent their last days during years and years of the AIDS epidemic – making the location of the garden appropriate, even if it is bittersweet.
“It feels good, but at the same time it’s not a feeling of ‘well-being’. It is the right decision that is made. It’s a great educational tool for the youngest to perhaps understand the period. It’s also important for a lot of people to have a sense of healing from here,” Keehnen said.
Learn more about the garden here.
The huge statue in the garden isn’t the only time Keith Haring’s works have been displayed by the lake. In 1989, Haring traveled to Chicago and painted a huge mural with hundreds of Chicago public school students. Learn more about his visit and listen to some of these students reflect on the project as adults.
Note: This story will be updated with a video.