Fairfield AIDS Memorial Garden

Fairfield was a rather special place for obviously a lot of clients, families, and definitely for volunteers as well … Many clients had their ashes scattered in the memorial garden at Fairfield. It’s a very, very important place.1

Suggestions had been made within the VAC regarding a memorial garden in inner Melbourne as early as 1985. But it was a plant presented to the Northern Support Group the following year in appreciation of the 24 hour care provided to a client that ‘planted the seed’, so to speak. This was the impetus for establishing a garden in the grounds of Fairfield Hospital for use by visitors, people with AIDS and those working to support and care for people affected by the virus. Fairfield had become a focal point for many touched by the epidemic, and a place to pause and reflect, away from the activity of the ward, was a welcome idea.

When approached by the VAC in 1987, the hospital responded enthusiastically and after discussions, work on the site began later that year. Dale Withers, working with Trevor Kent and Glen Hargrave, became coordinator of the Fairfield Garden Project, later known as Fairfield Meeting Place. Over a six-month period, volunteers in the Support Group worked to establish the garden, planting native and exotic shrubs, crafting pathways and signage, and creating a paved area with benches. Much of the landscaping was overseen by John Hughes. Generous support from the hospital, the gay community and elsewhere came in the form of funds, labour and donated materials. An anonymous contributor funded the construction of a gazebo, the design for which was provided voluntarily by architect Ian Ross.2

 

Support Group volunteers creating the garden in 1987.

Support Group volunteers creating the garden in 1987. Dale Withers

 

Support Group volunteers creating the garden in 1987. Dale Withers

Support Group volunteers creating the garden in 1987. Dale Withers

 

On a sunny Saturday, 9 April 1988, the garden was opened by Ian Harris, a Fairfield patient living with AIDS. A performance by a singer from the Victorian State Opera launched the occasion. Many gay organisations were represented at the opening, including the ALSO Foundation, the Boilers, Acceptance, PLWHA Victoria, and the Gay Men’s Community Health Centre.

The Garden Project represented the unique and respectful relationship between Fairfield Hospital and the VAC. It was symbolic of the close association between the two groups and the commitment of both to caring for people with AIDS. The relative speed and ease with which the garden was established indicates the support from the community and the close bond shared by those involved. ‘This garden also represents our community in action,’ said President Keith Harbour at the launch.3 ‘It is a great symbol of life and hope. We must retain a sense of these things in people’s lives.’4

 

Support Group volunteers creating and maintaining the garden. Dale Withers

Support Group volunteers creating and maintaining the garden. Dale Withers

 

Support Group volunteers creating and maintaining the garden. Dale Withers

Support Group volunteers creating and maintaining the garden. Dale Withers

 

Over the following years the VAC contributed financially towards maintenance of the garden, along with funds raised by Area Support Groups and gay social groups.Teams of volunteers from the Support Group held regular working bees, undertaking watering, mowing, mulching, paving, additional planting and the installation of additional seating. Dale Withers has fond memories of this time:

My six or seven years’ involvement with VAC Support was probably the busiest and most rewarding period of my life. The volunteer-driven ethos of the VAC provided space for both personal growth and self empowerment for many of us. Our working bees at Fairfield were often fun – social events – in the midst of a time of unending crisis.5

The gardens became a very special place for many, a place for tranquility and reflection. Gill Mahony remembers ‘it was just a wonderfully peaceful oasis in the middle of the city’.6 One visitor shared her experience online:

I have many memories of Fairfield Hospital, of the beautiful peacocks … hunting for the random tail feather, of the supportive staff, of my dear friends … of planting the gorgeous African Protea for our dear Janey in the gardens … and the many soulful walks early evening with dearest Sonja … many, many memories.7

The site took on added significance as patients chose to have their ashes scatted in the garden. ‘There are probably more ashes in that spot of land than just about any other part of Victoria even though it’s not officially a graveyard’, says Phil Carswell.8

After the closure of the hospital in 1996 the site became part of Northern Metropolitan Institute of TAFE (NMIT). Credit is due to local journalist Julia Irwin and activists Mannie De Saxe and Kendall Lovett for drawing attention to the project and the subsequent restoration of the garden by NMIT.9 The garden is now well cared for and respected by the management and students of NMIT. It is a living garden used by the School of Horticulture for regeneration and cultivation of native grasses and plants and this is balanced with its significance to the history of HIV. John Hall, Manager of HIV Services, said in 2012 ‘they remain committed to working with us and to value its importance. I don’t doubt their sincerity.’10 He confirms: ‘It is truly a living tribute to what has been and what is.’

 

The opening of the Fairfield AIDS Memorial Garden on 9 April 1988.

The opening of the Fairfield AIDS Memorial Garden on 9 April 1988. Dale Withers

 

The garden remains accessible today and still creates a moving experience for visitors, as expressed by someone who visited the garden for the first time in 2012:

I do not remember Fairfield Hospital as I was working on a little HIV unit in Brighton England at the time the Hospital was closed – however, I have heard so much about Fairfield and the controversy surrounding its closure.

I have visited many war memorials over the years and I have a strong connection to grief – its numbing, siren effect. What was happening to people living with the virus in Fairfield, Victoria was also happening in Brighton, England – I won’t even attempt to describe the horror.

I guess that’s the thing about a memorial – it exists to gently guide us, us who feel the siren call, to go back there – to a time in history that hurts – in this case a time when terror and a love that had only just begun to dare speak its name, were uncompromising bedfellows.

The Fairfield AIDS Memorial gardens are beautiful. Go take a look, go unprepared, and tread respectfully.

Rather than a monument scored by a list of the fallen, they create the conditions perfect for reflection, for remembering, and (for us in Fairfield, Victoria and Brighton, England at least) for gratitude – that today things are so very different.11

 

Fairfield AIDS Memorial Garden at NMIT today.

Fairfield AIDS Memorial Garden at NMIT today.


References