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Garden of Memories

Local architect Michael Lee’s AIDS Memorial Garden has been four decades in the making.

Michael Lee (Photography by Alex Rosa for Outsmart)

December 1 is World AIDS Day, an international observance dedicated to the memory of the millions of AIDS victims worldwide, to raise awareness of AIDS, and to remind everyone that the fight is ongoing. There are concerts and quilts and ribbons and political speeches, all meant to bring awareness to the disease. And here in Houston, the Texas AIDS Memorial Garden is a piece of history that has stood the test of time to help honor those we have lost.

The Texas AIDS Memorial Garden was not started by the State of Texas, the City of Houston, or even an activist group. It was started in 1986 by Houston architect Michael Lee and his partner, Chuck. Lee, now 70, was not given a directive or any money to start the garden. Instead, he did it to honor the memory of dozens of lost friends and acquaintances. “It was started because of the painful memories of talented gay men and friends dying of AIDS. Being the only survivor of all of my friends from my 20s and 30s, there was also an undertone of guilt. The construction of the garden was both personal therapy and a recognition of lost friends.”

Situated along the Third Ward’s historic Columbia Tap Trail, the garden is not conspicuous. Cyclists and pedestrians pass through it, not realizing they are treading on a piece of history. In fact, the Texas AIDS Memorial Garden is one of the oldest AIDS monuments in the US—even older than the San Francisco AIDS Memorial Grove. But if you pay attention, you will notice the lilies, irises, and a variety of native trees planted by Lee. You may even notice a plaque on the ground with the words “1986 Texas Memorial – AIDS Victims,” a stark reminder of those who have been lost to the disease.

Creating the garden was not easy. The area was not maintained, and people regularly littered there. “At first, the task looked daunting; we removed truckloads of debris and trash,” says Lee. It took hours and hours of Lee’s time to get the garden to a good place. And once the garden started coming together, there was another issue. Some officials called the garden an “encroachment.” Harris County commissioners, City Council, and Houston METRO showed no interest in the garden, and the Union Pacific Railroad had stopped maintaining the property.

Scenes from the Texas AIDS Memorial Garden along the Columbia Tap Trail in Houston’s Third Ward

Lee had to deal with more red tape than he could handle. He even had to see the area destroyed by people as high up as a former mayor. “Trees and plants that could have been moved were bulldozed. I could only save a few plants.” Some of those plants had been there for years. Lee still mourns the loss of two 40-year-old bald cypress trees in the garden that were cut down by CenterPoint. Each time the garden was threatened, it felt like the AIDS victims Lee was working so hard to memorialize were buried and forgotten again.

But Lee also notes a few hopeful developments. One of his proudest moments was seeing OutSmart publicize the dedication of the space by the Garden and Yard Society (GAYS) in 2004. He’s also happy to see how many people have stepped up to help. Together, he has worked with volunteer groups like Friends of Columbia Tap to preserve the garden. Ed Pettitt, a graduate research assistant and founder of Friends of Columbia Tap, says, “My goal, and the goal of Friends of Columbia Tap, is to make sure that we get this garden officially recognized and integrated into the trail.” Ed works tirelessly to help make that happen. He has even partnered with City Council member for District D, Carolyn Evans-Shabazz, who Pettitt says is trying to get the Department of Public Works, the mayor, and the Parks Department on the same page. The Department of Public Works owns the former railroad right-of-way, while the Parks Department helps manage the trail’s green spaces. Neither department has officially recognized the space yet, but they are making progress with the Department of Public Works to potentially grandfather the garden in as an official site. “We see this as a historic resource and an ecological resource that the City should be proud of and celebrate,” says Pettitt. “We want to make sure everyone appreciates this, because it is not just a Houston treasure but a national treasure.”

Something that Lee and Pettitt both hope to see in the future is an area in the garden with the names of AIDS victims memorialized in bricks that will form a circular plaza. Planning for the plaza is ongoing as part of a trail-wide Columbia Tap Action Plan facilitated by the University of Houston Community Design Resource Center. With a little work, the trail and the garden could become a Houston destination.

Lee hopes the garden will continue to flourish as he gets older and unable to maintain the site as much as he wants. More than anything, Lee just wants to see the garden he has worked so hard on become a place of respect for AIDS victims. He hopes that people will come to the garden, reflect on their memories, and appreciate the beauty of nature. “I am 70 years old and do not have the energy to restore the garden by myself. I can only pray that the City will formally recognize the AIDS Memorial Garden and ensure that the names plaza will be constructed. The garden was started nearly 40 years ago. The City of Houston needs to step up and take responsibility for their past neglect. Forty years is a long time to wait. The names of AIDS victims should be memorialized.”

For information on the Texas AIDS Memorial Garden, and to submit names for the memorial plaza, visit linktr.ee/aidsmemorialgarden. Donations can be sent to Friends of Columbia Tap at friendsofcolumbiatap.com.

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David Brasher

David Brasher received his Masters degree in English from the University of Louisiana. He has contributed to national publications such as Instinct Magazine and Buzzfeed as well as local publications in Nashville. He moved to Houston in 2022 and spends his free time watching CNN and listening to true crime podcasts.
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