An elderly man dressed in all white grabs the attention away from the large multi-colored, heavily decorated AIDS Memorial Quilt, as he reads off the names of the people that were lost to AIDS.
The man charged with the tradition of reading the names, Paul Sporer, said he was one of the first to make a panel on the quilt back in 1987.
“Every time I read off those names I feel like I’m being attacked by a machine gun,” Sporer said. “It’s unnecessary; this whole thing should have never happened.”
Executive director of gift shop Under One Roof, Beth Feingold, who was one of the organizers of the event, said the quilt holds about 91,000 names, but that number still grows, with at least one panel added every day. A panel is measured at 3 feet by 6 feet to represent the size of a human grave. One block consists of eight panels bundled together to form a 12-feet-by-12-feet section. There are 5,864 blocks on the quilt.
Feingold said the quilt is a testament to show how people took care of one another when the disease was emerging.
“Many are too young to remember what AIDS was doing to the community. It was a difficult time and we only had each other,” Feingold said. “The quilt was made to spread awareness, it’s a political statement and a tool in activism, we want people to fight back.”
Volunteer Kelly Rivera Hart, who organized the quilt displays in San Francisco, said the biggest display of the quilt was in 1996 when it was stretched out along the National Mall from the Washington Monument to the U.S. Capitol Building. It measured in length equal to 24 football fields.
He said he’s happy to see the quilt home after it was moved to Atlanta in 1999 along with the NAMES Project Foundation, a foundation made to preserve and care for the quilt.
“This is a reminder to us that AIDS is not over. Everyone is affected and we can still get infected,” Hart said.
San Francisco Department of Public Health reports that more than 19,000 people died due to AIDS as of December 2010. Avert, an AIDS charity, estimates that about 30 million people have died from the disease.
Ron Schmidt, who came to find the panel of one of his closest friends, said the quilt is back where it belongs and it should stay here in San Francisco.
“The quilt is so powerful. It is a significant part of our lives, it is our history,” Schmidt said.
Timothy M. Dobbins who was volunteering at the exhibition said he’s had to make four panels including one for his partner.
“With so many people dying in a short span of time, it’s like our own holocaust with some families not even acknowledging their loved ones,” Dobbins said. “So it’s amazing to see how the people are remembered through the quilts. It’s their permanent memorial.”
The quilt, which was developed by gay rights activist Cleve Jones in 1985 will be on display until Feb. 20 at various locations throughout San Francisco, including the former Tower Records store at 2278 Market St., the Under One Roof gift shop at 518 Castro St., Catch restaurant at 2362 Market St., Bank of America at 501 Castro St. and a clothing store called Body located at 450 Castro St.