LAKEVIEW — For decades, the lakefront near Belmont Avenue was a gathering place for Chicago’s LGBTQ community during a time when there were few spaces for queer people to meet publicly.
Belmont Rocks, a stretch of graffiti-covered stones that created a barrier against Lake Michigan, was a safe space for thousands between the 1960s and 1990s, but many who once convened there have died during the AIDS epidemic. Hundreds returned to the site Thursday to celebrate the opening of the AIDS Garden Chicago, a 3-acre park in honor of lost friends and those who have supported the queer community.
“I’d love to be here today consecrating this ground, looking out at a sea of my friends, associates, colleagues and the people who used to hang out here with me, but most of them are dead,” said State Rep. Greg Harris, who was diagnosed with HIV in 1988 and AIDS in 1990. “This is a memorial to those guys and the thousands of folks who died from AIDS.”
The park’s centerpiece is a 30-foot sculpture designed by artist Keith Haring, who died of AIDS in 1990. It also features a Gingko tree grove, planting beds for gardening and an educational trail with QR codes that can be scanned to hear audio recordings from people who are affected by the AIDS epidemic.
Yoni Pizer, a former state rep and board chair for the AIDS Garden Chicago, said the recordings come from “community members, caregivers, doctors and activists.”
“This is just the beginning, and more stories from more perspectives will be recorded and storytellers will rotate as we expand our reach,” Pizer said.
The Belmont Rocks were removed in 2003 and replaced with a concrete revetment to curb the lake’s waves, Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) said. He called the site “hallowed ground.”
“Many people have been in the trenches for 40 years plus, and it’s amazing that we’ve finally got this tribute to all the people who lost their lives,” Tunney said.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot recalled visiting the Belmont Rocks after attending her first Pride Parade in the ’80s while “trying to find my own place in the world.” She said her visit to the Belmont Rocks gave her hope for her future as a lesbian.
“I was amazed to see what felt like a sea of diverse, beautiful humanity that was sitting here, hanging out, dancing, playing music [and] barbecuing,” Lightfoot said. “I’d never seen or experienced anything like that before, and it gave me a sense of assurance that I was making the right decision by coming out.”
But Lightfoot said she also has “horrific” memories of the Belmont Rocks, feeling “helpless” as she watched numerous members of the community die.
“How could this be happening? And the government was ignoring how this was devastating our community all across the country,” Lightfoot said. “And the level of hatred being spewed by people that this was God’s will — that he was invoking his wrath on us because of our lifestyle.”
Gov. JB Pritzker, who allocated $1.5 million from the state’s coffers to support the AIDS Garden Chicago, said he was proud to stand with the LGBTQ community in fighting for equal rights.
Tunney called the project a “symbol of resilience.”
“This is what this garden is about — it’s education, resilience and making sure that this type of epidemic or crisis never happens again with government indifference for the first 10 years.”
Jake Wittich is a Report for America corps member covering Lakeview, Lincoln Park and LGBTQ communities across the city for Block Club Chicago.
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