We’re in the midst of battling a global pandemic, with a federal government which often seems disinterested at best in addressing the situation and unwilling to take the steps necessary to stop it. Though very different, it’s not the first time we’ve faced such a situation. In the 1980s and 90s, Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo were at the epicenter of a deadly pandemic that also took thousands of lives and faced extreme government indifference: HIV/AIDS. Today we look back on the people and organizations in our neighborhood who were on the front lines of that battle, and how they coped with the last pandemic.
St. Vincent’s Hospital & NYC AIDS Memorial
St. Vincent’s Catholic Medical Center became an important site in NYC LGBT history following the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic. Founded in 1894 and named after St. Vincent de Paul, a 17th century French priest, St. Vincent’s was NYC’s third oldest hospital. Located on 11th St. and 7th Avenue, in the 1980’s St. Vincent’s became one of the first institutions to respond to and treat HIV and AIDS, housing the first and largest AIDS ward on the east coast. The hospital was in fact often referred to as “ground zero” of the epidemic.
St. Vincent’s closed in 2010 due to financial pressures exacerbated by the global financial crisis. In 2011 the buildings were sold to Rudin Management Company and several were demolished in 2013 to make way for a condo development, with the hospital’s older buildings were converted to residential use (Rudin originally proposed to demolish all the buildings, but Village Preservation and others successfully fought to save the hospital’s historic buildings).
A New York City AIDS Memorial (also the winner of Village Preservation’s Regina Kellerman Award) now stands at the northwest corner of the former St. Vincent’s Triangle, which housed mechanical equipment for the hospital across the street.
The twin crises of AIDS and homelessness intersected in the 1980s to create a true epidemic – in 1990 there were an estimated 13,000 homeless people living with HIV/AIDS. What began as the AIDS Resource Center, with a few “scatter-site” apartment units in Chelsea and Greenwich Village, eventually became Bailey House and Bailey-Holt House – the first “congregate residence” for people living with HIV/AIDS. Sitting prominently on the corner of Christopher and West Streets, Bailey House was the first publicly funded project addressing the intersecting issues of homelessness and HIV/AIDS.
The LGBT Community Center
Located at 208 West 13th Street, between 7th and 8th Avenues, this Italianate brick building was originally Public School 16. In 1980, the City decided to change the function of the building and leased it out to the local nonprofit Caring Community, who sublet to other groups including SAGE (Senior Action in a Gay Environment) and the Metropolitan Community Church (an LGBT congregation). In 1983, Caring Community defaulted on its lease, and the LGBT-focused sublets, along with local gay and AIDS activists, saw the perfect spot for a permanent home. In December of that year the New York City Board of Estimate approved the sale of the building — also the former Food and Maritime Trades High School — to the Lesbian & Gay Community Services Center, Inc., for $1.5 million. Today the Center has grown to become the largest LGBT multi-service organization on the East Coast and second largest LGBT community center in the world.
In June 2019, the city finally approved our proposal for landmark designation of The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center.
Larry Kramer, a pioneering gay-rights activist and author, lived at 2 Fifth Avenue beginning in the 1980s. On August 11, 1981, he hosted a group of friends at his apartment to discuss the recent announcement of the outbreak of Kaposi sarcoma, a cancer attributed to AIDS. The group mobilized quickly, raising $6,600 for medical research and founding the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), the first AIDS advocacy and support organization, on January 4th, 1982.
By 1987, however, Kramer had become frustrated with the group’s passivity amidst ongoing threats to gay equality and increasing numbers of AIDS victims. On March 10, he gave an impassioned speech at the LGBT Community Center at 208 West 13th Street, which led to the creation of the grassroots activist group AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) two days later. The organization is credited with calling attention to the political and medical bureaucracy and prejudice contributing to the deaths of those who had AIDS. The founding of both GMHC and ACT UP represented a fundamental shift in the response to and view of the AIDS crisis at the time, from one of government apathy and inaction to a determined effort by those most affected by and potentially at risk for the virus demanding a response by government, the media, and established institutions to recognize their humanity and address the life or death needs they faced.
Kramer’s apartment is featured on the LGBT History tour on our Civil Rights & Social Justice Map. Click here to see other important LGBT sites in our neighborhoods.
AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) is a direct action and advocacy group organized to affect change in order to fight the AIDS Crisis. ACT UP was formed in New York City after a series of meetings at the LGBT Community Center on West 13th Street, and would grow to become a national and international organization. Continuing in the footsteps of earlier advocates, ACT UP frequently took direct action to bring attention to policies and policy-makers thought to be hindering the fight against AIDS. A frequent target of early campaigns was the Koch administration, who many detractors believed ignored and mishandled the city’s response to the AIDS epidemic during the 1980s.
Though commonly associated in its use of imagery with the stark black background and pink triangle of the Silence = Death Project, ACT UP produced and utilized a variety of graphic arts for use on posters, protest placards and brochures. The New York Public Library has a great collection of these sometimes blunt messages on their online Digital Gallery. Click here to see the full digital collection.
676 Broadway was the former studio of artist Keith Haring. Haring began working there on the 5th floor in 1985, and continued to work there until his death from complications from AIDS in 1990. Throughout his career, Haring created many public artworks which often carried social messages. He created more than 50 public artworks between 1982 and 1989, many of which were created for charities, hospitals, children’s centers, and orphanages.
Haring was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988. In 1989, he established the Keith Haring Foundation, its mandate being to provide funding and imagery to AIDS organizations and children’s programs, and to expand the audience for Haring’s work through exhibitions, publications and the licensing of his images. Haring enlisted his imagery during the last years of his life to speak about his own illness and generate activism and awareness about AIDS.