The AIDS Quilt is returning to San Francisco. Right here’s the way it started

Cleve Jones and his friend Joseph Durant were walking up Castro Street in November 1985, putting up posters announcing a candlelight march in memory of Harvey Milk and George Moscone.

They stopped for pizza near the corner of Market and Castro, picked up a San Francisco Chronicle, and halted in their tracks.

“The headline said ‘1,000 San Franciscans killed by AIDS,’” Jones wrote years later in a Chronicle opinion piece. “We realized that almost all of those 1,000 lived within a 10-block radius of where we stood. We were standing at ground zero.”

Jones and Durant responded by placing posterboard squares with the names of the dead on the old Federal Building in San Francisco, hiding ladders and stacking the names up high when the police weren’t looking. Jones remembered how it looked like a quilt. Eighteen months later, he created a fabric panel for his late friend Marvin Feldman. More people joined, and a movement was born.

After being stored in Atlanta for almost two decades, the AIDS Memorial Quilt returns to Golden Gate Park this weekend (opening ceremonies begin at 9:30 am Saturday), a triumphant return to San Francisco with its biggest display ever in the city where it began .

The quilt is a moving sight even without the historic context. But it’s even more stunning to learn how quickly the quilt spread in influence, and how effective it was as a marketing tool for grassroots activists trying to bring attention to the cataclysm in the gay community.

“It was something I wasn’t prepared for,” Jones said recently on the Total SF podcast, referring to the emotional impact of the tributes. “I prepared the quilt as a weapon. I was trying to illustrate the enormousity of the crisis. I was trying to shame the government. I was trying to give you folks in the media a visual that could help people understand what we were going through.”

Cleve Jones takes care of the AIDS Quilt in the NAMES Project San Francisco headquarters in 1987, while Gert McMullin vacuums up scraps of fabric.

Deanne Fitzmaurice/The Chronicle

The first report of the quilt appeared in The Chronicle in July 1987, as a growing group of volunteers furiously sewed, collected new 3-by-6-foot panels and worked on marketing for the NAMES Project, which managed the quilt. At the time, the newspaper reported, there were just a few hundred squares — most made by family and friends but also tributes to actor Rock Hudson and performer Liberace.

But the love and creativity were far beyond what organizers imagined. Quilt panels included rhinestones, feather boas, many pairs of worn jeans, baseball uniforms, locks of hair and, Jones said at the time, “more glitter than we had ever seen.” It was all part of a healing process — providing a positive and creative outlet for loved ones who they felt were denied a voice by politicians who wrote off HIV as “a gay plague.”

By the time the quilt arrived in Washington, DC, by truck in December 1987 for display in the National Mall as part of the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, there were 2,600 squares, covering a space larger than two football fields.

The Washington, DC event was an incredible success. The quilt was unfurled in front of the Capitol, with loved ones coming from across the country to read names. In some cases, it was the only memorial service the AIDS victims received.

“There were 60 readers who read 30 names apiece, and I’m not sure that any of us were prepared for the impact of it,” quilt spokesman Dan Sauro told The Chronicle in 1987. “We faced the Capitol as we read the names , and not one of the readers came down off the platform without breaking down.”

Vice President Al Gore and wife Tipper Gore view the AIDS Memorial Quilt on the Mall in Washington, DC in 1996.

Vice President Al Gore and wife Tipper Gore view the AIDS Memorial Quilt on the Mall in Washington, DC in 1996.

Ron Edmonds/Associated Press

By the end of the year there were 3,000 panels, with AIDS victims from every state represented, except North Dakota and South Dakota. KPIX-TV and the Hearst-owned San Francisco Examiner newspaper sponsored a quilt display in Moscone Center, and a 25-city US tour was planned for 1988. By then the quilt had grown so large it traveled by semitruck.

The NAMES Project was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. The documentary “Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt” won the 1989 Academy Award for documentary feature. The quilt returned to Washington, DC, in 1996 and was visited by President Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The quilt was stored on Townsend Street in San Francisco for more than a decade, but eventually it became too big for San Francisco. In 2001, the NAMES Project announced that it was losing its lease and would move the quilt to a new home at a warehouse in Atlanta, closer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By that time it weighed 45,000 pounds.

Jones publicly endorsed the move at the time, but he now looks back on the decision with sadness.

“I’ll tell you, one of the worst mistakes I made in my life was allowing the quilt to leave San Francisco,” he says now. “I couldn’t have stopped it. I was quite ill at the time. I didn’t want it to happen, but it happened.”

Cleve Jones, a friend of the late Harvey Milk, leads a march on Castro Street on June 25, 2021.

Cleve Jones, a friend of the late Harvey Milk, leads a march on Castro Street on June 25, 2021.

Yalonda M.James/The Chronicle

In 2019 the National AIDS Memorial, the group behind the AIDS Memorial Grove in Golden Gate Park, announced it would take control of the quilt. It transported the quilt — now on two semitrucks — to a warehouse in San Leandro in early 2020, with plans for a huge display in Golden Gate Park that spring. Then the worldwide pandemic hit.

“Mother of the Quilt” Gert McMullin, who traveled to Atlanta to help maintain the panels and incorporate new ones, shifted her efforts to mask making for the new plague, using discarded fabric from quilt projects.

After a two-year delay due to COVID-19, the quilt will be on display in Robin Williams Meadow this weekend, beginning with opening ceremonies and an unfolding on Saturday morning. It’s free to the public to view from noon to 5 pm on both days.

AIDS Memorial Grove officials are calling the quilt “the biggest community art project in the world,” and the 3,000 panels will be the largest display in San Francisco history. It’s a fraction of the 50,000 panels in San Leandro that make up the entire memorial — with more coming. (The group now digitizes the panels for loved ones who want to find friends and relatives.)

Jones says the artistry still blows him away. His favorite panels are the ones that he doesn’t fully understand, because there’s a personal message from a loved one to the deceased.

Jones has had a rough year, including his eviction from a rent-controlled Castro apartment that turned into a symbol for the city’s housing issues. But he’ll be in Golden Gate Park both days with the quilt and expects an emotional weekend.

“The beauty of it,” Jones says, “still takes my breath away.”

Peter Hartlaub (he/him) is The San Francisco Chronicle’s culture critic. Email: Twitter: @PeterHartlaub

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