While he was showing me around the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space yesterday, Bill Di Paola, founder of the environmental non-profit Time’s Up and this place as well, told me all about Adam Purple– the radical environmental activist was known for his colorful personality, a lifelong dedication to direct action, and passionate advocacy for community gardens on the Lower East Side.
A friend and colleague of Di Paola’s, Purple passed away after suffering a heart attack while biking across the Williamsburg Bridge. For the most part, Di Paola stuck to the script– recounting Adam’s achievements, his impact– but for a moment betrayed something like weariness. “It’s the real deal– this guy Adam Purple rode around on his bike,” he laughed darkly. “It’s like the real New York, what it used to be, anyway.”
In honor of Adam Purple, Time’s Up has put together an exhibition at MoRUS– it includes ephemera, photographs, zines and other publications the organization hopes to collect for an archive– as well as a memorial at La Plaza Cultural, the sprawling community garden located on the adjacent block, to take place on Saturday, September 26th. The non-profit is collecting donations in order to give Purple a “green burial,” in accordance with his commitment to composting. “No one was going to bury him,” Di Paola explained.
The 84-year-old eco-activist spent the last few years living in Williamsburg at the Time’s Up Brooklyn location, where a sidewalk memorial now honors him. “When we started the museum, we got him to come and speak and he told us he needed a place to live,” Di Paola recalled. “Over the years we’ve tried to support him with different legal [costs], housing, all kinds of things– he seems to always be questioning the city.”
Adam Purple was certainly prominent in New York City, having made many media appearances on behalf of the Lower East Side community gardens, and had a cult following (one that continues to expand) of sorts thanks to his zines and a mini-book called Zentences! He was instantly recognizable with his long, white beard, and omnipresent purple tie-dye– a look that was a cross between Father Yod, Walt Whitman, and Frank Zappa. Though he’d grown quieter in his old age, he would still help with light tasks like sorting parts for bicycles at Time’s Up. In whatever way he could, Purple remained closely tied to the activist community that in turn supported him.
“The idea behind this is to remember people who have done something good when they die, it shouldn’t just be about rich people,” Di Paola explained. “He died poor, but he did this beautiful thing. And the museum is all about that. We’re honoring someone who’s considered a hero. Everybody knew him.”
Well-known photographer Harvey Wang has contributed a short documentary to the show at MoRUS, which is screening in the basement, as well as some colorful images of Purple and his most renowned project, the Garden of Eden– five abandoned city-owned plots on the Lower East Side that Purple took over and transformed into a beautiful, yin-yang-shaped community garden. It was probably the activist’s most tangible contribution to the downtown community at a time when it was racked by poverty and green space was sorely lacking. When the city destroyed the garden in January 1986 to make way for housing, there was a huge outpouring of frustration.
“This was the first time that I can remember, and a lot of people can remember, that so many people were outraged,” Di Paola recalled of the demonstrations after. “It was kind of like when that lion or that tiger was shot– that one thing had been going on for a long time, but it was the first time people had noticed it, and they were really upset.”
But Di Paola argues the bulldozing of the Garden of Eden actually benefitted other civilian-run gardens around the city. “The ones that came after this, they had a head start,” he explained. “People organized insanely to save all the gardens because this one was destroyed even though it was very high-profile.”
Despite the benefit to other community gardens, historically built on neglected lands and abandoned lots, 20 years later Purple still considered the Garden of Eden “a work of art” and his highest achievement. “It would have been better to kill me than kill the garden,” he said in a 2006 interview, part of Wang’s documentary screening downstairs.
The personal was the political for Adam Purple, in more ways than one. He grew up on the countryside, where, he told Wang, “I learned to have some respect for the natural life processes.” Purple explained this as the motivation for wanting to plant a garden, so that kids in his neighborhood might develop a similar appreciation for the Earth.
The memorial show recognizes Purple’s life as inseparable from his ideology by including some of his belongings, which demonstrate a connection between the ideals found in his zines. Hanging in the corner is a purple tie-dye poncho with glittery embellishments. “He made his own clothes,” Di Paola explained.
Time’s Up has also tapped the community and those who knew Purple for help with other materials. While I was visiting MoRUS it became clear that Adam Purple’s message was so influential, even people who never knew him were touched by it and willing to lend a hand to remember him. I was speaking with Di Paola when a youngish guy stopped in to see what was happening and mentioned he’d picked up a zine made by Purple a couple of weeks back. “I had no idea who this guy was until I picked up the zine,” he said, explaining he was inspired by Purple’s message. “Then he died two weeks after I read about him, which is crazy.”
Di Paola’s eyes lit up. “We could really use that,” he said. The visitor ran back to his apartment and grabbed the zine, handing it to Di Paola to make copies. “I didn’t even know this existed,” Di Paola said excitedly.
Maybe Purple’s message is so palatable in part because of his revolutionary actions, but also because of his simple, matter-of-fact commitment to his ideals on an individual level. He was involved in the bike movement as well as recycling awareness efforts, both of which offer ways for almost anybody to participate in environmentalism. Di Paola pointed to a photo of Purple crouching down while people looked on in horror in the midst of what was, for a long time, a daily routine. “He used to go all the way up to Central Park just to pick up horse manure because he was so into composting,” Di Paola explained. “Really, he was one of the forerunners of compost– he built a whole garden in 1985 out of compost. That’s huge.”
Though he seemed somewhat reluctant to talk about Adam Purple on a very personal level, Di Paola revealed he first met the activist around 1990. “I helped organize a legal thing when he was in trouble,” he recalled. “For years I didn’t see him, but he lived in a building next to this garden and they were trying to kick him out of there, and I was trying to organize people to move into the building with him. We had these intense meetings, me, Adam, and these young squatter type kids. I was like, ‘Can you let them in?’ and he was like, ‘Only if they compost.’ And composting when you go to the bathroom can be difficult for people, so it never really worked out.” Di Paola laughed at the memory.
Because Purple’s sustainable life and radical commitment to his ideals were so at odds with consumerist culture and the current capitalist order, he experienced a great deal of hardship. When Di Paola showed me around La Plaza– an enormous community garden on Avenue C complete with a compost pile, towering trees, and dense plant life– I asked if Purple had helped with this particular garden.
“He was old,” Di Paola explained. “He was 84, but he was acting a little older, you know? He was living in very bad conditions– cold places, hot places– and when you get old and you’re not treated too well…When he came here he couldn’t do much, it would take him a lot of effort to get here. He didn’t move around too much in the later part of his life.”
In honor of Adam Purple’s sacrifice for the cause, Time’s Up has designed a memorial service much like an activist event. “We’re holding a speak out– it’s an old school, more radical thing where people get to say whatever they want,” Di Paola explained. There will be poetry, some “light music,” as well as free food provided by Angelica Kitchen. Di Paola said people are welcome to bring food to share as well. There’s even going to be a tie-dye table.
“The memorial is taking place both in a garden and in a squat– Adam would really love that,” Di Paola said. “We’re trying to hit all the Adam Purple environmental things and do it right.”
The Adam Purple Memorial Show opens at MoRUS on Saturday, Sept. 26 (4 pm to 7 pm) and runs until Saturday Oct. 10. The memorial will be held at La Plaza on Saturday, Sept. 26 (4 pm to 8 pm).