“Rare Cancer Seen In 41 Homosexuals”

On July 3, 1981, the New York Times ran a small story with perhaps one of the most foreboding and portentous headlines in modern history:

Rare cancer seen in 41 homosexuals.”

Of course this was one of the very first published reports dealing with what has come to be known as HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) and AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome), one of the deadliest and most widespread pandemics of the last half century, which had a particularly devastating effect upon the Village, East Village, and NoHo.

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Early ACT-UP action in Grand Central Terminal

NYT AIDSAs of 2015, it was estimated that AIDS caused 36.7 million deaths worldwide, with an additional 35 million people  living with HIV globally.  The United States Center for Disease Control estimates that 1.1 million Americans are living with HIV, and that 636,000 people in the United States with an AIDS diagnosis have died — more Americans than died in World Wars I and II, the Korean and Vietnam Wars, the Gulf War, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.

But of course in mid-1981, no one really knew what was to come, or even what was happening.

But New York City was the epicenter of the first stages of the AIDS epidemic, and Greenwich Village was in many ways the epicenter of the epicenter.  For many years, Community Board #2, which includes Greenwich Village, led the city in terms of the number of AIDS cases and AIDS deaths.

And many of the locations most strongly associated with the early fight against AIDS were located in the Village, including St. Vincent’s Hospital, where so many of the first cases of AIDS in New York were treated, and the LGBT Community Center (formerly the Gay Community Center) at 208 West 13th Street, where many of the earliest meetings organized in response to the AIDS epidemic were held, including meetings of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP).

Another key historic site in the Village in connection to the AIDS epidemic was the house at 186 Spring Street where Dr. Bruce Voeller lived.  Voeller, who specialized in sexual health and research, got the name of the disease changed from the original inaccurate and stigmatizing Gay Related Immune Defense Disorder to Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, and conducted the first studies showing that condom usage could prevent the spread of HIV (sadly, in spite of this and other incredible history of the house, the Landmarks Preservation Commission refused to consider it for landmark designation, and allowed it to be illegally demolished by a developer in 2012).

Of course a lot has changed since then.  While the disease continues to take lives in New York and across America, it has spread throughout the globe,most severely in places like Sub-Saharan Africa.  New treatments allow people with HIV to live much longer, but neither a cure nor a vaccine has yet been found.  And while the Village was devastated by the effects of AIDS in the 1980’s, this neighborhood can certainly no longer be called the epicenter of the epidemic. And of course the New York Times, which in the 1980’s was roundly criticized for its failure to provide adequate and accurate coverage of the AIDS epidemic (not to mention its refusal, until the late 1980’s, to use the term ‘gay,’ substituting instead the more clinical “homosexual”), has certainly broadened its coverage since then.

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The design for the NYC AIDS Memorial at Greenwich Avenue and 12th Street.

The NYC AIDS Memorial has been built upon the former site of part of St. Vincent’s Hospital, to remember all those who were lost to and those who fought against the AIDS epidemic, especially in the Village.

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Andrew Berman

Andrew Berman has been the Executive Director of GVSHP since 2002.