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Plague & Survival
AIDS in Silver Lake
Alvaro Vega, who worked in the pulmonary division at Kaiser Permenante in nearby Los Feliz, describes his first encounter with "GRID" [Gay-related Immune Deficiency], the early term for AIDS.
Like many gay urban neighborhoods in the United States, Silver Lake in the 1980s and 1990s was hit hard by HIV/AIDS. Silver Lake's direct care organization like Being Alive and the Salvation Army's Alegria housing joined services across the city at a time when government neglect sparked grassroots organization and activism. The neighborhood also featured grittier responses to the pandemic with events like Club Fuck!, a weekly happening at the gay Latinx Basgo's Disco, once the Black Cat Tavern in the 1960s, later a gay bar called Le Barecito, and now a restaurant again named the Black Cat, mostly straight but featuring a commemorative plaque and a few photos of the 1968 protest. Featuring icons of the queer 1990s art scene like Cathie Opie, Vaginal Davis, and Ron Athey, Club Fuck!'s "modern primitive" aesthetic and sadomasochistic ethos flew in the face of both AIDS stigma and sanitized anti-promiscuity campaigns. The 1993 film Silverlake Life: the View from Here, a devastating document of a couple filming each other as they are dying HIV-related illnesses, brought the gayborhood wider recognition. This clip shows lovers and artists Peter Friedman and Tom Joslin still healthy and celebrating life by dancing, making out, and engaging campy gallows-humor with a joke about Gertrude Stein on her deathbed.While West Hollywood was the area's center of groups like ACT UP, our narrators illuminate the more subtle and complicated effects on the individuals and overall neighborhood of the Swish Alps.
“This is before the AIDS epidemic really wiped out so many people. Then the demographic changed. People were getting sick, and it started to thin out the whole crowd. There were a lot of those little shops on Hyperion started shutting down. There were just little signs where people were disappearing.” –Joseph
“As people were dying off, I think that when someone knew that somebody had died in an apartment, or in a duplex, or something, there was a stigma on that apartment. [...] And if the landlord had a hard time renting it, it was generally because the larger population around the area knew that somebody had died of AIDS there. And prices went down in those apartments where people had died of AIDS or had lived there.” —Alvaro
“I think that there were pockets that were hit and property came down in pockets. It’s not widespread, mainly where there were apartments. So, those rents were lowered in gay areas, I believe.”—Alvaro
"People were disappearing." -- Joseph
“It was very precarious position to be in; however, while it may have dampened my sexual appetite and wanting to be out and about, it didn’t completely suppress it. And I noticed that in most men. They didn’t change. We may have changed a couple practices while having sex.” —Alvaro
"I stopped dating. I wasn't looking to date, and I saw the AIDS thing and it scared me a little bit." -- Joseph
“A great majority of my friends died. The friends I made when I initially moved here, within the first five years, I would say that maybe 15, 16 good friends—good, good friends that I had, I would say 13 died. Maybe 12. And, uhh, the rest did not. I went to so many funerals. I went to more funerals when I was in my 20s than all through my 30s, 40s, and 50s. It was incredible." —Alvaro
Biographies of Narrators (These sound excerpts also appear in the essay sections of "Swish Alps" chapter.)
Joseph Fiorillo was born in Miami, Florida in 1942 and eventually went to school in New York, where he primarily dated girls. Finding gay life by way of 1960's counterculture, he saw all sides of New York's swirling 70s nightlife. Moving to Los Angeles in 1979, Joseph worked as a real estate agent and established a private network of gay friends in and around Silver Lake while observing its thriving nightlife. Joseph’s life story weaves through crucial subcultures of the late twentieth century, charting sexual liberation, the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and the development of Silver Lake as an important gayborhood in Los Angeles.
MW Cartozian Wilson is a trans guy who was raised as a girl in Silicon Valley. As a child, MW did not want to wear dresses. From an early age, MW knew that “there was something different about me,” what exactly was less clear. A gifted student athlete at a private girls' high school, who also haunted the San Francisco underworld, MW ended up going to The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he met his first girlfriend. MW eventually got an MFA in film at UCLA and moved to Silver Lake, where in 2004 he took over the legendary dyke/trans/genderqueer club Shotgun, hosted weekly at the Eagle leather bar.
Alvaro Vega grew up in a large Mexican American family in Arizona, knew he was gay when he was five, and first came out when he was in high school. He eventually moved to Silver Lake and immersed himself its gay culture. Alvaro first encountered HIV/AIDS in the local Kaiser hospital where he worked as a pulmonary technician. His oral history provides a view on over three decades of Silver Lake life.
Bill Tutton was born in 1963 and grew up in Buffalo, New York. He has played in bands since high school and came out to his family when he was twenty. In the 1980s, he moved to Los Angeles and gained national recognition in the 1990s as the bassist for The Geraldine Fibbers, a center piece of the Silver Lake music scene. He is married to Alvaro Vega.