Loose Threads

The Names Project's national foundation and its famous AIDS quilt are moving out of town this week, leaving behind a slightly tattered local chapter

The Bay Area chapter of the Names Project could suffer a major blow at the end of this month, when the organization's national foundation moves from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., and its world-famous quilt — which memorializes those who have died from AIDS — is permanently shipped off to Atlanta.

The local chapter of the Names Project has always been dwarfed by the nearby national foundation and has struggled for visibility and funding. It hasn't even had its own office space since it lost its lease in 1999. While some in the local chapter hope the foundation's move will open up new opportunities, others wonder whether the group can ever overcome the hardships of recent years.

“One of the things that's been so hard for us, with the foundation being here, is that it's smothered us in terms of raising funds,” says Rick McCormack, a co-founder of the Bay Area chapter who is now estranged from the group. “If they leave and it fizzles out, what do we have?” he asks. “We have absolutely nothing but memories and a bench [in front of the Market Street storefront where the quilt was founded].”

“We're leaving behind a chapter that I hope will grow,” says Edward Gatta, president of the board of directors for the Names Project. “They have been living under our shadow for the last 10 years.”

But the upset around the foundation's move even caused one local activist, Felicia Elizondo, to threaten to steal back the panels she made for the quilt. She later retracted that statement and vows now to help the local chapter get back on its feet, though it remains to be seen how closely she'll be able to work with the group.

“As the caretakers for the quilt, that's the worst thing you could threaten. We become immediately very protective,” says Michael Henshel, who served as co-chair for the Bay Area chapter in 1999.

Though relocating the foundation has been talked about for years, the San Francisco real estate crunch of the late 1990s, combined with the high costs of shipping the quilt from San Francisco to all points east for public displays, finally made a move imperative.

An offer from the foundation's San Francisco landlord to buy out its lease made funds available to finance the move. The group had hoped to move both its office and the quilt to Washington, D.C., to support lobbying efforts there. But the foundation couldn't afford a space there large enough to hold the quilt panels, which now include more than 44,000 3-foot-by-6-foot sections.

Practical considerations aside, the move also reflects the changing face of AIDS. New infections are rising disproportionately among young people of color, notes Cleve Jones, who co-founded the quilt here in 1987. “I think there's a symbolism in moving the quilt from San Francisco to Atlanta that is pretty clear. But in case anyone is not quite getting it, we are determined that this quilt be useful to the African-American communities in their struggle against the pandemic.”

Jones is somewhat critical of the Bay Area chapter's focus on finding an office in the Castro. “The quilt needs to be visible in San Francisco and the Castro certainly,” he says. “But of equal or perhaps greater importance is what we're doing in Oakland and East Palo Alto.”

The local chapter, which has had to curtail certain types of outreach even though it has continued to display the quilt in the nine-county Bay Area, now has its sights set on moving into a new visitor center and offices at 284-286 Sanchez, just three blocks from the old space on Market Street in the Castro. If all goes well, the group will sign a lease and begin renovations in April.

With no place to meet, the Wednesday night sewing bees in the Castro have gone on hiatus, though an African-American church in the city of Richmond has picked up some of the slack. Everything, including panels not on display in local bank buildings, schools, churches, hospitals, and other places, has had to go into storage. The chapter's small board of directors and a core group of volunteers have held on for months by scheduling meetings in their homes or in borrowed space at the foundation's headquarters.

Despite the hassles of the last year and a half, Dolores Thompson, acting co-chair for the Bay Area chapter, says the group has maintained a roster of more than 200 volunteers to help hang the quilt and speak to schoolchildren and others about AIDS. “We are one of, if not the, busiest chapters in the country,” she says.

The number of volunteers may increase as more people who had worked previously with the national office migrate to the local chapter. That would be a welcome change, according to Henshel. “We don't have to compete for volunteers anymore,” he says.

“Although I really hate it that [the foundation] is going — there's a lot of physical and emotional attachment there — what it does for us is it frees up the confusion,” Henshel says. “And it will also free up resources. People who have been willing to support the quilt in the Bay Area will, we hope, continue to do so by supporting us.”

The local chapter recently hired a part-time employee to facilitate displays and help the board search for a new home. “To be run by volunteers is just too much,” says Thompson. “We all have full-time jobs.”

Besides the added cost of any new lease, the cost of staging displays of the quilt will rise substantially when the group must begin paying to ship the quilt from Atlanta for displays in the Bay Area. Though Names Project chapters across the country have been paying to ship panels from the national archives for years, the Bay Area chapter has enjoyed the convenience of having the quilt available just minutes away by car. “I'm not going to be driving over there anymore with a pickup truck,” says Henshel. “I'm going to let FedEx do that.”

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