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Adam Purple, Eccentric Environmentalist and Gardener in New York, Dies at 84

Dellavalle Designs Community News Adam Purple, Eccentric Environmentalist and Gardener in New York, Dies at 84

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Adam Purple, Eccentric Environmentalist and Gardener in New York, Dies at 84

Posted By Jim Dellavalle

The man with the flowing white beard was a familiar presence for decades on the streets of the Lower East Side of Manhattan where he squatted in an abandoned building, created an elaborate, renowned garden and often wore royal-hued clothes that reflected the best known of his many adopted names: Adam Purple.

On Monday, Mr. Purple, whose real name was David Wilkie, died after collapsing on the walkway of the Williamsburg Bridge.

Carmine D’Intino, a musician and friend of Mr. Purple’s, said he identified his body at the New York City medical examiner’s office on Tuesday.

Mr. Purple, who was 84, was born in Missouri and went to college in Kansas. He said in interviews that he served in the Army before obtaining a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and wound up as a reporter at The York Gazette and Daily in York, Pa., where he wrote about the police.

He eventually quit that job to roam the country and landed in New York City in 1968, using aliases like the Rev. Les Ego, John Peter Zenger 2nd and General Zen of the Headquarters Intergalactic of Psychic Police of Uranus. He also produced hundreds of copies of a tiny book called “Zentences!” that was meant to encourage meditation. One was included in the New York Public Library’s rare book collection.

In 1972, Mr. Purple moved into a tenement on Forsyth Street, on the Lower East Side, where he made his mark as an environmentalist, a utopian visionary and a sometimes stubborn gadfly.

“He was the most committed person I ever met,” said the photographer Harvey Wang, who first encountered Mr. Purple in 1977 and documented him for decades. “He lived his values.”

Mr. Purple renounced the internal combustion engine, Mr. Wang said, and ceased riding in cars, preferring to travel by bicycle. He became a vegan and refused to wear leather. And because of his abhorrence of waste, he salvaged and repurposed everything he could, including empty glass bottles, rusty nails and even buckets of lost tennis balls found on the street.

His most ambitious project began in 1975 on several abandoned, rubble-filled lots outside his building on Forsyth Street and was called the Garden of Eden. It was a meticulously planted 15,000-square-foot collection of fruit trees, plants and flowering shrubs that emanated in circles from the garden’s center, a yin-yang symbol. Publications including National Geographic published photographs of the garden, which drew admiring comparisons to works by Robert Smithson, Walter De Maria and Agnes Denes.

Mr. Purple envisioned a continuing expansion of the garden, said Amy Brost, who interviewed him for StoryCorps in 2006 and made a short film about him with Mr. Wang. The plan included rows of greenhouses, underground living spaces and what Mr. Purple called a “Great Circle” hemispheric sculpture.

“It was supposed to be the beginning of an environmental revolution,” Ms. Brost said.

It was not to be. The City of New York announced plans in the 1980s to replace the garden with housing. A group of architects, academics and environmentalists went to court to block construction.

 

But a judge ruled against them, and in 1986, in what James Stewart Polshek, then the dean of the Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, later called “an urban crime,” the city bulldozed the garden. Mr. Purple watched the destruction from a window of his building, and his supporters began covertly creating trails of painted purple footprints leading to the site, drawing attention to the garden’s loss.

Mr. Purple had been a rent-paying tenant when he began living on Forsyth, but in 1976 the building was abandoned by its owner and transferred to the city. The electricity was cut off in 1981. Tenants began moving out, and soon Mr. Purple was the only one left. He filled water jugs from hydrants, foraged for food and kept warm with the help of a wood-burning stove. He finally left in 1999, under pressure from city authorities, to make way for a new development.

He vanished for a while but resurfaced on the Lower East Side in the early 2000s, sometimes living with Mr. D’Intino. About three years ago, he moved into a small room in Williamsburg, in Brooklyn, office of the environmental group Time’s Up. Bill Di Paola, the group’s director, said Mr. Purple helped with light tasks and seemed to enjoy being around younger activists, sometimes holding long conversations about ecology.

Although eccentricity sometimes prevented people from appreciating his prescience, Mr. Wang said Mr. Purple was among the first people he met who talked passionately about the importance of recycling and the dangers of unchecked development.

“People thought he was crazy,” Mr. Wang said. “But Adam was speaking the truth when the truth couldn’t be heard.”
Correction: September 18, 2015

An article in some editions on Wednesday about the death of Adam Purple, a Lower East Side gardener and activist, misspelled the surname of an artist whose work Mr. Purple’s so-called Garden of Eden was compared to. She is Agnes Denes, not Dennis. The article also misstated the timing of a protest in which Mr. Purple’s supporters began creating trails of purple footprints leading to the site of the garden. While one trail may have been created before the garden’s destruction, the campaign took place afterward to call attention to its loss.

Source: NYTimes

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