AIDS Grove Provokes Bulldozer Threat; Chicago Serial Killer: TV

Volunteers at the National AIDS Memorial appear in "The Grove." The show airs on PBS stations in December. Source: Open Eye Pictures via Bloomberg

The winning design for the National AIDS Memorial featured a small grouping of blackened poles erected on a charred landscape.

The proposal by architects Chloe Town and Janette Kim was meant to evoke the devastation of a forest fire. Supporters saw a poignant metaphor, while detractors considered it a pretentious waste of time and money.

“The Grove,” a terrific hour-long documentary by Andy Abrahams Wilson and Tom Shepard, traces the little-known, two-decade history of San Francisco’s National AIDS Memorial Grove. Beginning tonight, the film will air on PBS stations to mark World Aids Day.

In 1991, a group of grieving San Franciscans planted a few trees in a neglected, seven-acre section of Golden Gate Park to commemorate the AIDS deaths of friends and lovers.

Soon, as many as 200 volunteers set aside the third Saturday of every month for weeding and planting, and the once blighted spot became a beautiful, low-key sanctuary. In 1996, local congresswoman Nancy Pelosi successfully urged President Bill Clinton to designate the Grove as a national memorial.

Bulldozer Threat

That resulted in more internal dissent than widespread recognition. Meetings of the Grove’s board of directors, captured by Wilson’s camera, became polite but intense battlegrounds, with younger members bemoaning the park’s “disconnect” between its low profile and national aspirations.

The park, says one board member, lacks the “shocking, disruptive” statement demanded by the AIDS crisis.

“For me, a lovely garden doesn’t do it,” says another.

A lovely garden, of course, is exactly what founding board member Jack Porter had in mind when he organized the first planting. He threatens to “throw himself in front of the bulldozer” if even one of the winning design’s charred poles is installed.

Porter’s side wins that battle, and the patch of greenery remains a memorial without a monument. Giving both sides their due, “The Grove” offers no easy answers on how best to memorialize the dead. But the film’s gentle, insightful approach is a fine place to start.

“The Grove” airs on PBS stations beginning tonight. Check local listings. Rating: ***

‘Hidden City’

The best stories, says crime novelist Marcus Sakey, are about the worst people.

That’s the premise for Sakey’s new Travel Channel series “Hidden City.” Visiting a different place each week, Sakey presents a travelogue of crime and notoriety, recounting the darker moments that helped shape the place.

With his double-pierced ears and shaggy hair, Sakey is an affable guide prone to neo-noir narration (Chicago is a city “good at doing bad.”) But his tales are anything but hidden.

In the Chicago episode that kicks off the series, Sakey rehashes the tale of H.H. Holmes, whose murder spree during the 1893 World’s Fair was definitively chronicled in Erik Larson’s best-seller “The Devil in the White City.”

Segments on John Dillinger and 1968’s Chicago Seven trial turn up nothing a Wikipedia search couldn’t reveal.

To fill out the running time, Sakey wanders off track with silly diversions. In the segment about the ‘68 riots, he trots out that hoary reporter’s gimmick of undergoing a voluntary dousing of pepper spray. To better understand Dillinger, he fires off a tommy gun at a shooting range.

The second episode available for review focuses on Boston, and finds nothing new in the Brink’s Robbery, the Strangler or James “Whitey” Bulger.

Sakey might have been wiser to present his trips alphabetically. Maybe future installments on Austin and Anchorage will contain a few surprises.

“Hidden City” airs Tuesday on Travel Channel at 10 p.m. New York time. Rating: **

What the Stars Mean:

****          Excellent
***           Good
**            Average
*             Poor
(No stars)    Worthless

(Greg Evans is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

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