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