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Laguna Beach leaders hope to rescue neglected AIDS memorial garden

Laguna Beach's Garden of Peace and Love, a memorial to AIDS victims, has fallen into disrepair

Laguna Beach's AIDS memorial garden — once well-tended on a bluff decades ago when the beach city's gay community was first touched by the disease — is in neglect.

Ice plant has grown over much of the Garden of Peace and Love off Mountain Road, and the white roses and bougainvillea that once grew in the area have disappeared.

Now administrators and members of the city's HIV Advisory Committee are asking what can be done to breathe new life into the memorial garden and who should take on the work.

The garden sits atop a bluff overlooking the ocean but has hardly more than a few concrete steps, a bench and a statue of an angel. It was the brainchild of longtime Laguna Beach resident Michel Martenay, who succumbed to the disease in 2009 after tending the garden for 20 years.

The ashes of more than 50 people are scattered in the garden.

The city wants to add ground cover to the area as part of a larger project that includes fixing the stairs that lead from the bluff to the beach. The Design Review Board will consider the plan Nov. 20.

Some residents are upset that the city hasn't taken better care of the garden.

"I'm surprised all they want to do is add ground cover," said Brian Sadler, chairman of the HIV Advisory Committee. "To me it needs a lot more than that."

Sadler said the city should take the lead in the restoration since it owns the land. It sits below the Coast Inn which, as the former home of the Boom Boom Room, served as a gay nightlife hub in the 1980s and is poised for its own renovation.

He said the committee has tried to organize volunteers to regularly tend the garden, including watering by hand, but could never get a long-term commitment.

"Most people who care advocate to the city," Sadler said. "It is city land, but the city won't put any irrigation into it. Plants are going to die if they don't have water."

Public Works Director Steve May said the "city is interested in doing more" and plans to meet with the HIV committee to discuss possible options.

Martenay tended the area for two decades, planting flowers and watering them by hand in honor of those suffering from AIDS. But in 2008, Martenay learned that he had contracted the disease, which rendered him too weak to care for the garden.

When Martenay moved to an Anaheim hospice, friends rallied at first, pulling weeds, planting roses and day lilies, and watering.

Over time, though, nobody replicated Martenay's commitment to the land.

Korey Jorgensen, an HIV specialist and family doctor at the Laguna Beach Community Clinic, would like visitors to have an easier time entering the garden, which requires that they squeeze past a railing that lines the stairway.

"I'd like that barrier removed and [another] bench added so people could sit and contemplate their loved ones," Jorgensen said.

The garden holds special meaning for many, including former Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who said in a 2008 interview with The Times that he met his partner, who died of AIDS, at the Garden of Peace and Love.

"I would go there and pray literally in my meditative way, and remember people who have passed on," Rosendahl said.

bryce.alderton@latimes.com

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