He called it the Garden of Eden, but it was more like a 15,000 acre public artwork that happened to grow vegetables and flowers. In the mid-1970s, environmentalist gadfly Adam Purple started creating a large public garden out of several vacant lots near his tenement apartment on New York’s Lower East Side. The garden took the form of a series of concentric circles, with a yin yang symbol at the center. Among other things, it was planted with corn, cucumbers, tomatoes, asparagus, raspberries, roses, lilies, and 45 trees, fertilized with horse manure from Central Park. From above, it resembled an earthwork along the lines of those by Robert Smithson or Agnes Denes. At one point, National Geographic did a photo spread on it.
I lived in New York for a brief period in the 80s and remember having this garden pointed out to me—but it was hard to get a real sense of it from ground level. This was shortly before it was bulldozed in 1986, to make way for low income housing. Purple continued to live near the site until, after a long fight, he was forced out of the building he successfully squatted in for decades; he moved to Brooklyn and continued his activism at Time’s Up, a cycling and environmental group.
Purple lived a Spartan life—he never drove, was strictly vegan, and scavenged most of his needs. Last Monday, at the age of 84, Purple died as he was biking across the Williamsburg Bridge. No foul play is suspected, and a memorial is planned for this Saturday at La Plaza Cultural, at the southwest corner of E. Ninth St. and Avenue C, in Purple’s beloved East Side.
When you use space that doesn’t belong to you for a garden, there is always a risk—indeed, we’ve found that even when people use their own front yards for perennial and vegetable gardens, they can take a risk. I have to think Purple’s legacy is being carried out, in some part, in such reclaimed, former industrial landscapes as the Highline and at Wilkeson Pointe and Tifft Farm, here in Buffalo, where former urban brownfields have become beautiful parks.
Purple understood how important it was to bring life and growing things to the middle of the city. It’s unlikely that any but institutional green space will ever exist in Manhattan now, given the current property values there. Purple didn’t have the benefit of paid architects and municipal funding; he just knew that the inner city needed a Garden of Eden.