More Americans have been lost to AIDS than in all the U.S. wars since 1900, and the pandemic has killed 22 million people worldwide. However, few know about the existence of the National AIDS Memorial, a seven-acre grove hidden in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. The Grove chronicles the garden’s transformation from a neglected eyesore to landscaped sanctuary to national memorial. The film shows how a community in crisis found healing and remembrance, and how the seeds of a few visionaries blossomed into something larger and more provocative than they could have imagined. But as the Grove’s stakeholders seek broader public recognition, a battle erupts over what constitutes an appropriate memorial for the AIDS pandemic.
The Grove begins as an unlikely love story during the gay community’s coming-of-age in San Francisco before AIDS struck and recounts the devastation that this plague and its stigma wrought on the community. Overwhelmed by unrelenting personal losses, several prominent California environmentalists start corralling their grief and transform a neglected parcel of land into a beautiful sanctuary. What transpires is a serene public-private collaboration; a natural refuge for many grief-stricken survivors in search of healing, remembrance and renewal. In October 1996, Congress and the president approve the National AIDS Memorial Grove Act, proclaiming the Grove a nationally designated memorial, on par with only a handful of other sites in the U.S., including Mount Rushmore and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. In order to live up to its designation, some members of the Grove community begin questioning whether the memorial serves the national interest. While the Vietnam "wall" receives millions of visitors a year, the National AIDS Memorial remains relatively unknown, even to most locals. Some start to ask whether in 50 or100 years the memorial aspect of the Grove will be obvious to visitors and whether it will provoke the horror of the epidemic.
The leaders of the National AIDS Memorial wrestle with these questions and decide that a central and artistic architectural structure is needed to create a larger and lasting impact. An international design competition is launched. More than 250 proposals are submitted and an esteemed jury of artists, landscape architects, and designers is formed to review and select the winning design. A heated debate is ignited over what kind of design is appropriate and even if a monument is necessary at all. Communities respond vociferously, and when a provocative design is chosen, it comes under fire several months later by local protesters.