INTERVIEW WITH PAUL KELTERBORN, NYC AIDS MEMORIAL CO-FOUNDER
How did you find your way to this project?
In 2011, right around the time that St. Vincent’s Hospital was being shut down and the community board was gearing up to start reviewing the Rudin rezoning request, Chris (NYCAM cofounder) and I met for a drink. I lived in the neighborhood and was aware that the hospital was going to become residential. Chris and I got to talking about the narrative around the early days of the AIDS crisis and it felt natural that something truly special should be located in the spot around which so much AIDS activism revolved and where many people’s memories of lost loved ones were most closely associated. Chris and I were both in our early 30s when we started organizing around this effort; we hadn’t come of age during the AIDS epidemic, but we grew up in its shadow. David France wrote an article in New York Magazine pointing out how the hospital building stood as a de facto memorial to the AIDS crisis. After it was gone and new condos stood in its place, people would no longer have a physical reminder to look to and remember. Because New York’s built environment is episodic and constantly changing, Chris and I felt that any new development at this site should honor the rich history of the place and incorporate some historical narrative element. We felt that the memory of the 100,000 New Yorkers who have died from AIDS would be served by something lasting, permanent and beautiful. This was the starting point for our work during the past 5 years. With our combined experience—Chris had worked for the city and I was working for a non-profit—we began meeting with anyone who would talk to us. We followed a thread of introductions and slowly built up a coalition of supporters who could help.
How have you found your experience working on this project?
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that we probably met hundreds of new people as we worked to go from zero-to-60 as quickly as possible. We had to develop an organization, grow a board, establish an online and social media presence, fundraise, organize events, interface with the community board as well as city and park agencies…the list goes on. We began our efforts late in the ULURP process and so there were abundant obstacles to overcome in a short amount of time. Despite the taxing pace of the project we came away energized from nearly every meeting we had-–not only were they informative and productive, they often became very personal and cathartic. At the conclusion of many meetings, people we met with shared their histories and memories of friends, family members, and lovers that they had lost. Often it was tearful, the pain was still so fresh. It was these heartfelt stories that kept me motivated and determined to make this happen. I think that for me and Chris this has been an absolutely transformative experience-–certainly a roller coaster-–but one that we are very lucky to have been a part of.
What do you think is most important about the Memorial?
AIDS is a disease that continues to ravage communities in New York and throughout the world, and in order to combat it we are going to have to remain vigilant and determined and united. It’s a fight that’s being fought on many fronts with activists, scientists, governments, healthcare providers, social service providers and many others all striving toward a common goal. There are artists of all kinds and storytellers that are also working to ensure that we don’t forget the individuals who have died and who are the faces of the grim statistics. I want the Memorial to do a lot of different things. I want it to help tell the story. I want it to remind people that the fight goes on and to instigate conversations between older and younger generations of people. I want it to prompt people to learn more about the crisis. I want people to pause when they are walking through the Village, to read some of the amazing Jenny Holzer artwork, and to remember those who were lost. I also hope that our organization, and others, will use the space as a gathering spot for events and to mark significant dates. The beauty of the design is that it can accommodate both very intimate and personal experiences as well as more public gatherings. More than anything I hope that it is a public space that is used and that embeds a piece of history into the landscape of New York.
What’s the status of construction and opening date?
Like any construction project in New York, especially one with so many stakeholders and so many participants, this one has taken longer than we would have liked. But the good news is that we are looking ahead to a dedication ceremony this fall. Many of the pieces of the memorial are being fabricated offsite-–the steel members are all being cut in Argentina and will be arriving this summer. The granite floor and benches will be coming in from Minnesota after the engraving is done this summer. I’m very excited to see it all start coming together at the end of the summer and can’t wait to have it open to the public in the fall.