Honoring Adam Purple: a Tenement Staffer Remembers a Community Activist
Adam Purple in action. Photograph courtesy of Harvey Wang.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw Adam Purple. His long, white flowing beard moving across his chest rhythmically while he rollerbladed, if my memory is right, up the Williamsburg Bridge. It was about ten years ago, and I was riding my bike from Greenpoint, Brooklyn to go to a Food Not Bombs meeting at ABC No Rio on Rivington Street in the Lower East Side. I would see him occasionally after that on a bike, but never standing still.
I never personally knew Adam, but he became a point of fascination for me. Through my time working in the Lower East Side, I came to know his legacy. Adam Purple, born David Wilkie, was a NYC transplant like me, and like me, he came to New York and found himself instead passionately connecting with his neighbors in advocacy. He had a variety of careers which included writing for newspapers and producing artwork and writing small, rare, philosophical books. But his most important legacy was as an environmental advocate. He was an appropriate person to see on my way to Food Not Bombs, because he shared that organization’s ideology—that it is a human right to have food, and that people don’t have to participate in the mass consumption of things that destroy the earth– that they can take what is already there, as well as make and create on the earth, all that they need. He was a recycler and a bicycler; a gleaner and a gardener. He occupied the city with compassion and care for his neighbors and shared in a commitment to improve their shared neighborhood home together. He was a hero of mine and I wish I had told him.
Adam Purple’s most notable achievement came when he began to create community gardens on the Lower East Side in abandoned lots on Eldridge Street. It was enormous, occupying 15,000 square feet. It was razed by the city in 1986 after a protracted court battle. In an oral history interview, he says that he was inspired to do this by watching his neighbor’s children play in a garbage pit in the abandoned lot. He said, “That must be some way to grow up.” Being from Missouri, he was able to envision and create something different.
When the court battle began to destroy the garden and turn it into housing, it was revealed that the lots were listed as Vacant. Adam and his neighbor’s reality were never recognized by the City at all. His enormous garden produced corn, black walnuts, strawberries, black berries and others foods that the neighbors could help to grow and consume. It was a safe and beautiful place to play for the children, and like everything beautiful in this city, it was impermanent, and it was only visible to the people who loved it.
Adam Purple died on the Williamsburg Bridge on his way to stay at the Times Up space in Williamsburg. He always held true to his commitment to living an earth friendly, community based life. He is a hero, and he is not the only one out there. This weekend, there will be a memorial for Adam Purple at the LUNGS Harvest festival on the Lower East Side. If you can’t attend I suggest you take a walk around your own neighborhood, and find a neighborhood garden, and maybe even give a hug to a gardener there. Because, the truth is that no matter how much money you have, or how much time, we can co-create beautiful spaces in our communities. It takes, love, passion and effort—and a knowledge that all things are just passing through New York, people, buildings, gardens, and moments. We have to grab hold of what we can.
A memorial for Adam Purple is planned for Sat., Sept. 26, from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., at La Plaza Cultural, at the southwest corner of E. Ninth St. and Avenue C.
People are invited to speak and briefly share their memories of the famed gardens godfather of the Lower East Side and his legendary Garden of Eden.
Further details of the memorial are still being worked out.
Purple, real name David Wilkie, 84, collapsed and died on Mon., Sept. 14, while taking his bike over the Williamsburg Bridge into Manhattan from Williamsburg. The cause of death was apparently a heart attack.