“Immediately, I blamed Outside Lands,” wrote Cole Valley resident James Driscoll on Facebook when he first saw the extensive damage to trees and a fence at the AIDS Memorial Grove in Golden Gate Park. 

But last Friday night’s vandalism was not the work of the festival flock, Driscoll discovered. Instead, the damage was likely done by a lone man, a repeat offender who may be responsible for $35,000 dollars of destruction in the Grove and the parks’ adjoining spaces over the last year. Driscoll, who wrote to The Bold Italic with the story, got the real scoop from the Grove's full-time gardener, Ray Goodenough.

The suspect, identified by the area’s homeless campers, is a young mentally ill man.  “Or he’s mentally ill and in a drug filled rage, and he’s definitely fixated on the national AIDS memorial,” Steve Sagasar of the Grove’s operations and development staff told me.

The Grove was, it seems, attacked senselessly, not targeted specifically or in hate. But the violation of this usually tranquil space of remembrance has high physical and emotional costs. Sagasar recalls the months of camaraderie forged among volunteers who maintain the 10-acre living memorial and built the bamboo fence that was dashed over the weekend. (In fact, the new fence had already been repaired once.)

There’s no set template for modern-day secular memorials, but as a living symbol of abstractions like loss, strength, and life itself, the Grove succeeds beautifully. Here, individuals are remembered among the inconceivably many. This is true for Sagasar, whose partner is memorialized in the Grove. “Every time something like this happens it’s very personal. It hurts. I lost him in 1993, to AIDS, and my work for the Grove is dedicated to his memory. We’ll get in there this following Saturday and we’ll build that fence up, that’s not gonna stop us."

The grove began to grow as a concept in 1988 but was officially designated on Sept. 21, 1991, when Mayor Art Agnos planted a single redwood sapling which is now more than 40 feet tall. In October 1996, legislation backed by Nancy Pelosi and signed by Bill Clinton designated the Grove as the nation’s AIDS Memorial, elevating its status. In a public private partnership, the Grove’s board of directors holds a 99-year renewable lease with the City of San Francisco, raising maintenance funds privately.

On the third Saturday of the month between March and October, without recruiting, the Grove receives an average of 120 volunteers. Many of them have been coming since 1991 and dedicated their work to loved ones who died from AIDS. If you're interested in joining them on the next volunteer day, sign-in is at 8:30 a.m. and coffee is provided.

“We are very blessed to have the kind of community that just keeps coming back,” says Sagasar. “New people and a lot of youth groups, people who have no connection to AIDS but are compelled to join us. It’s a very sacred and spiritual and beautiful space."

Photos by James Driscoll

Got a tip for The Bold Italic? Email tips@thebolditalic.com.