AIDS in New York: the First Five Years

6.7.2013

By Andrew Belonsky

The New-York Historical Society’s new exhibit puts on display the confusion, fear, and anger that defined the disease’s destructive descent on the city

AIDS in New York, the First Five Years, a compelling, must-see exhibit at the New-York Historical Society, sets the stage with a look at the youthful exuberance of the post-Stonewall era, including photos from Plato’s Retreat and of the gay male sunbathing pickup scene on Pier 48, on Manhattan’s West Side.

Then it moves into more sobering archival materials on display—original doctor’s memos, yellowing newspaper articles, heartwrenching diaries, illustrated protest posters, and audio and video clips—that capture the rampant press confusion and sudden death tolls that traumatized men and women and informed a reactionary public. One of the most startling and unusual items is a yellow carrying case with eight small plastic bottles: a 1985 Abbott Human Lymphotropic Virus Type III EIA Kit, the first test that could screen for the virus.

The exhibit also depicts a burgeoning community of young, vibrant people who were confronted by and, in turn, challenged a medical, political, and social crisis that threatened to undo years of freedom fighting. They took to the streets, formed groups like amfAR and, in Larry Kramer’s case, wrote pieces like The Normal Heart, expressions of anger that were also calls to action. As Edward Rothstein explained in his New York Times review of the exhibit:

"curator, Jean Ashton, in gathering material from the historical society, the New York Public Library, New York University, the National Archive of LGBT History and private collections, gives this familiar narrative an important turn. Despite some flaws, by focusing narrowly on a particular place and time and not trying to survey the disease’s larger history, the exhibition shows how virulently AIDS tore at the city’s social and political fabric from 1981 to 1985.

“AIDS in New York: The First Five Years” is now open and on view through Sept. 15 at the New-York Historical Society.

See more archival materials and photos from the exhibit on the following pages.

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