by Isabel Wade
In 1988, I arrived at the Trust for Public Land to launch the California ReLeaf project, a statewide urban tree-planting initiative. On my first day, I was approached by a staff member (Nancy McNally) who wanted to share her idea about planting gingko trees in memory of people lost to AIDS. She explained that she was a member of the art community in San Francisco and had already lost many friends to this devastating disease. Planting trees would be a positive act at a time in the crisis when all news about the virus was negative. Having myself already lost several good friends to AIDS at this point, and because one of my husband’s and my best friends (Stephen Marcus) was infected, I loved the vision and wanted to help. Since I was just starting a new job and had my hands full, I suggested that she follow up to get assistance in developing the idea from Friends of the Urban Forest (I also happened to have been the founding President of FUF). FUF became the sponsor of the project but ultimately, because it did not fit in their largely street-tree focused program, the project floundered. Nancy also lacked experience with non-profit organization and fundraising. I decided to put together a Steering Committee of friends and colleagues from the landscape and nonprofit environmental world that could help. This group included Stephen Marcus and Alice Russell-Shapiro, both landscape architects.
We began regular meetings, using TPL’s office, and addressed 3 core issues:
- clarifying the nature (a grove of trees or a landscaped respite?) of the project
- identifying a location for the Grove (all agreed Golden Gate Park but where?)
- addressing the need for funds, both capital and long-term for maintenance
Selecting the location was initially challenging as the Recreation and Park Department General Manager was not receptive to our idea, perhaps fearing that the Department would be ‘stuck’ with maintenance of a new site in the park when they were already struggling to keep up close to 1000 acres with fewer gardeners each year. Fortunately, a long-time employee (Jim Cooney) thought the project was important and identified 5 sites in the park that might be considered for the Grove. After a group visit to each proposed location, the committee consensus was in favor of the de Laveaga Dell, a neglected and very over-grown 7.5 acre section of the park near the tennis courts. Jim Cooney helped secure acceptance of this site at Rec & Park as the ‘official’ location for the Grove.
A second fortunate circumstance for the development of the Grove was a chance breakfast with my friend and fellow tree planter, Andy Lipkiss of the Los Angeles Tree People. Andy and his wife Katie were visiting her late brother’s (an early AIDS victim) partner who happened to live up the street from me on Buena Vista Avenue. I was invited to join them and to meet David Linger since we were neighbors. David, still recovering from the loss of his lover, immediately agreed to assist with the project when he learned what we were trying to do. He quickly put together a newsletter that could keep people informed about the effort and began to coordinate the activities of the Steering Committee. David’s many hours volunteering for the Grove to get the project off the ground were an essential early contribution to realizing the vision of the memorial.
Another invaluable person in the initial days of the project was Don Jacobs. Don, who had just retired, became a daily volunteer in the “office.” By this time, the office was a room in the basement of my home on Buena Vista as we had moved the project from Friends of the Urban Forest under the aegis of the nonprofit I had founded in 1981, Urban Resource Systems. Despite the low public visibility of the project, there was a surprising amount of calls and letters to the office at this point. This spoke both to the ostracism individuals (and often their families) experienced with a diagnosis, as well as to the desperate lack of hope at the time for a timely cure. Often the calls and communications to the project were of a heart-wrenching nature, and Don handled them with great kindness and skill. More than one person called to see if we could accept the ashes of their loved one because the person’s family had rejected them. Others urgently wanted to help at the Grove as a way to heal or because they wanted to ensure their loved one was not forgotten.
While we could not just plant trees (we were still working on the Master Plan for the site that would need to be officially approved by Recreation and Parks Commission), I realized that we could jump start the renovation of the Dell by launching Work Days to clear the site of years of overgrowth and garbage. Most importantly, we could provide an outlet for people struggling to manage their despair and grief. Volunteer Work Days at most parks typically draw 5–15 volunteers. The first Work Day in 1991 at the Grove drew more than 100 volunteers! And it ended 4 hours later with what became a signature of NAMG, the circle of sharing and contemplation. And of course there was another signature element of the day, Jack Porter’s (Stephen’s partner) famous lemon bars and other sweet treats. Jack at this point was deeply involved in the project (we lost Stephen in December 1989) serving on the Steering Committee, staffing every single Work Day, and helping build the community of volunteers thanks to his palpable charm.
I think it is fair to say that none of the early organizers of the project envisioned that the Work Days would be a continuing effort. We imagined that once the main work of clearing was done and the site was established, volunteer interest would wane. The project’s continued success keeping a strong volunteer base is, in my opinion, in large part due to Jack’s ongoing dedication and welcoming demeanor at every event. Repeat volunteers at the Grove are truly a family. And the Grove’s role as a memorial site continues to grow. It is telling of the continuing impact of AIDS in our community, and in others, that thousands of visitors from around the world come to the Grove every year to visit this special place where they can remember their loved one(s) and contemplate the passage of time in the beauty of nature.
Work Days not only continued after the inaugural one, but also gave a real sense of momentum to the Grove project. People were beginning to donate significant funds and it was important to show progress on the vision. I left the California ReLeaf project in 1992 and became a full-time volunteer and fundraiser for the Grove, writing grants, making calls, hosting luncheons in my garden Gazebo. We held our first fundraiser at my neighbor Jim Hormel’s, lovely home. Jim’s donation and a grant from Alice’s (Russell-Shapiro) family foundation (Columbia) allowed us to hire our first paid Executive Director, Kerry Enright. Between Kerry and the addition of some strong members of the Board of Directors, the project surged ahead. The Grove became the official national memorial to all those lost to AIDS in 1996, thanks to the enormous help of Rep. Nancy Pelosi.
For me, the Grove represents many things. First and foremost, it is a beautiful place to visit and a soothing spot where I can remember my dear friends Haydn, Joe, Rich, George and of course, Stephen. Mostly I am sad on these visits, regretting the lost hours and joys of friendship. But I do find solace in the lovely and secluded nature of the Grove and in watching the growth of the landscape over what is now, many seasons. I also find enormous gratification in the model of park improvement that we developed for the Grove project. Volunteers are essential to parks and the Grove is an outstanding example of the quality of care that can be provided by a motivated public. The critical link to success beyond volunteers is paid staff and continuity of day-to-day management. The Grove model provides this maintenance by funding a staff person at the Recreation and Park Department specifically for the dell. While the motivation to help at the Grove is somewhat unique because of the AIDS crisis, I would hope that even if we meet the goal of ending the epidemic by 2030, people will still come to this remarkable living memorial to honor the lives lost in the crisis and the blood, sweat and tears of all who contributed to creating the Grove.