Mapping An Epidemic Through Real Estate: Did We Build Our Homes On The Graves Of Others?

As AIDS spread through New York in the 80’s, its impact on the city’s real estate became indelibly etched.

By Annette Barlow December 27, 2016
Photo courtesy of Studio ai

As activists, community members, and city officials from across the city came together to mark World AIDS Day on December 1, a new memorial commemorating those lost to the disease was unveiled on a triangular patch of land bordering 12th Street and Greenwich Avenue, known to many as St. Vincent’s Park.

Designed by Brooklyn-based Studio ai, the kite-like installation—a canopy of slatted steel triangles anchored to the ground by triangular legs, sitting atop a 15,000 square-foot public park, boasting water features, lawns and benches—sits on the former site of St. Vincent’s Hospital, home to the USA’s second dedicated AIDS ward and widely considered to be “ground-zero” for the city’s AIDS epidemic.

The decision to locate the memorial here is significant, not just as a direct result of the park’s connection to the former hospital, but also because it charts, according to the New Yorker’s Alexandra Schwartz, the importance the disease played in the evolution of New York’s real estate market. Considering the impact of real estate is, says Schwartz, “crucial to understanding both the way that the city handled, or mishandled, the crisis in its early days, and the way that the crisis forever marked the city in return.”

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Schwartz charts the origination of the AIDS spread, highlighting the Stonewall riots in the 60’s as a key factor luring LGBTQ people to a perceived newly liberated city. Cheap rents throughout the 70’s enabled these people to stay, resulting in large numbers of LGBTQ people residing in low-cost and affordable housing at the outbreak of the Aids epidemic in the early 80’s. At this point in time, the real estate market was “relentlessly bullish,” as the recession firmly took its hold.

As Schwartz points out, AIDS was only publicly acknowledged in 1981, at which point rumors began to spread through the city like wildfire. The disease became increasingly stigmatized, and those suffering were increasingly treated like social pariahs. Homelessness among HIV and AIDS sufferers dramatically rose, particularly in areas such as Harlem and Greenwich Village, and those living in shelters experienced greater risk of violence. Many residents demanded AIDS sufferers be removed from their apartment buildings, and as people died, their partners—not officially recognized in any legal sense—were often evicted from their homes.

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As a result, newly vacated apartment blocks became available, and developers pounced. Once-affordable units were replaced with luxury condos offered at market-rates, and thereby displacing large portions of New York’s residents. The situation had become untenable, and as activist organization Act Up demanded more research into AIDS drugs and better palliative care for patients, activist Eric Sawyer, in partnership with Larry Kramer and architect Rich Jackman, formed Act Up’s Housing Committee. Its goal was to compel the city to help develop housing suitable for people suffering from the disease.

After years of demonstrations and campaigns—including taking over Trump Tower in protest of his immense and unsavory tax breaks from the city—New York dedicated $25 million to creating safe and suitable housing for people with AIDS and HIV. The state matched the amount.

But the most poignant point in Schwartz’s article is that, according to writer Sarah Schulman, the neighborhoods with the highest rates of infection—Chelsea, the Lower East Side, the East Village, Greenwich Village and Harlem—are the same ones that experienced the most marked and rapid gentrification in the following decades.


Annette Barlow



Annette is freelance editor, sub-editor, journalist and proofreader with a fierce love of all things feminist, food and music. She is a regular fixture on the arts, culture and feature desks at The Guardian, and her words have appeared on NME, Great British Chefs, The Fly, The Line of Best Fit and Australian Times.

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