Tony Radovich remembers the first time he walked up the steps of that old house on the corner of 17th and Thomas—he had butterflies that recalled his first day of junior high. It was 1993, and Radovich was about to join the Seattle AIDS Support Group. The disease had surfaced in the Seattle area nearly a decade earlier and back then was often a death sentence. For a long time, the group lost two members a week.
The house that Radovich remembers has since vanished—replaced, like many of its counterparts on Capitol Hill, by a row of boxy modern residences. Rainbow crosswalks aside, the neighborhood’s identity as Seattle’s queer center has faded with gentrification. But in the Station House plaza and adjacent to Cal Anderson Park, a new project will make this history a little more visible.
The AIDS Memorial Pathway weaves together a series of public art installations that balance quiet remembrance of the epidemic’s toll with a spirited celebration of community power. Tacoma artist Christopher Paul Jordan designed its largest component, a 20-foot X composed of smaller sculptures representing stacks of speakers from bars and clubs. Jordan’s work pays homage to the spaces where marginalized communities found solidarity. Nearby, quotes from oral histories collected by local artist Storme Webber highlight the work of local women and people of color in the fight against AIDS, and a trio of glass sculptures by Horatio Hung-Yan Law will soon provide room for reflection. A throng of metal protest signs by the local design group Civilization—re-creations of actual protest signs carried by Seattleites at the height of the late twentieth century epidemic—ties everything together.
With AIDS came a wave of political action on Capitol Hill. When the federal government wouldn’t address the severity of the public health crisis, locals took matters into their own hands. Neighbors collected donations for burgeoning support organizations at popular bars and danced down Broadway in the annual Pride parade. The Seattle AIDS Support Group hosted dinners, and volunteers conducted STI screenings at the Seattle Gay Clinic a few blocks away. From 1984 to 1997 the Alice B. Theatre Company staged works by gay and lesbian playwrights that drew large crowds. “At the same time that Capitol Hill was a community in a medical crisis,” recalls theater cofounder Susan Finque, “we were also a community that was coming into our own.”
These days, Capitol Hill is but a stop on a Pride route that begins Downtown, and neighborhoods like White Center have established themselves as new hubs of queer nightlife. When asked if Capitol Hill is still the haven for the LGBTQ community that it once was, Finque gives an emphatic “no.”
But some of the organizations that saw Seattle through the AIDS crisis are still around—many eventually combined or expanded their missions when medication rendered the condition less deadly. Seattle AIDS Support Group is now Peer Washington, with a broader scope and geographic reach than before. The Chicken Soup Brigade, once devoted to providing meals and caring for people with AIDS, has expanded to help those suffering from other chronic conditions. When Covid-19 hit, the group delivered meals to more homes. Its number of volunteer drivers doubled.
Like Covid-19, AIDS has disproportionately affected the lives of people of color—a legacy the AIDS Memorial Pathway emphasizes. And as Covid lays bare the inequities that run through the community, Christopher Paul Jordan says, “the call to action just couldn’t be any clearer.” A few yards from the artist’s X, those locally crafted protest signs seem to ask who might carry them next.