The Circle Be Unbroken

by

08/14/2006

300 E.3rd St., New York, NY 10009

Neighborhood: East Village

Adam Purple cycled by me as I walked down Second Avenue near 3rd Street early on a sunny spring morning.

adam

It was nothing unusual—in the past twenty-five years he has pedaled by me dozens of times while making his rounds below 14th Street. A few weeks earlier, I had seen a photograph of Mr. Purple’s long-since demolished Garden of Eden in the Grey Art Gallery exhibit devoted to downtown New York in its 1974 to 1984 heyday—my youthful stomping ground. Seeing my memories getting the royal museum treatment was jarring. It made me realize that whatever happened 25 years ago had happened, by any measure, a very long time ago. So encountering Mr. Purple still conducting his business as usual was reassuring—it allowing me, at least for a moment, to sustain the illusion that maybe not so much time has really passed.

The aerial shot of The Garden was one of the few artifacts on display at the gallery that filled me with genuine nostalgia. Maybe it will take another 25 years and at least a touch of senility to alter my memories, but the East Village I recall wasn’t as much fun as people insisted it was then, and certainly wasn’t as much fun as people imagine it was now. By the time I arrived, the scene was as haughty and tight-assed (in its more-marginal-than-thou way) as anything else going on during the early 80s, suffused with a charmless obscurantism that was almost as profound a part of the downtown weltanschauung as hair gel. At The Garden of Eden, however, everyone was welcome, and I suppose that spirit of inclusion accounts for my enduringly wistful memories of it.

For those who don’t remember the saga, Mr. Purple was a hippy squatter living on Forsyth Street in the mid-1970s who, through toil and perseverance, created The Garden on several neglected plots of city-owned land. Rings of plants and flowers radiated like ripples from a yin and yang symbol, the widening circles of color meeting the right angles of the crumbling city. It was as startling a juxtaposition of nature and urban dissipation as you might have experienced if, while hiking in the Adirondacks, you happened upon Richard Hell and the Voidoids. The Garden was an against-all-odds enterprise that took imagination, grace, and commitment to pull off, all of which were supplied – along with horse shit biked in from Central Park – by the hirsute, lavender-clad Adam Purple.

In 1986, the City of New York decided it wanted to develop housing on the lots, and evicted Mr. Purple. The Garden, don’t it always seem to go, would have to be bulldozed. There were protests, there were petitions, there was litigation, and saving the Garden of Eden became a cause celebre.

Mr. Purple smiled and answered: “I’m not interested in fighting anybody. I’m interested in enlightening them.”

That stirred me. The year was 1986 – nineteen years past the Summer of Love and a decade before the yoga boom – and people just weren’t saying things like that in public without using air quotes. This was not, for example, the message of Ivan Boesky or other leading figures of the day. I tend to be a cynical person, but the notion of being able to enlighten people instead of fighting them germinated a kernel of optimism embedded in me from all the times I had been forced to watch “Free to Be You and Me” by substitute teachers. Mr. Purple’s words expressed a confident largeness of spirit that I found both idealistic and pragmatic, an approach no one could really argue against. And so I clung to it – for twenty years, I told that anecdote, shared Mr. Purple’s philosophy, and, in my way, tried to live up to it.

eden

Despite the hue and cry, The Garden of Eden was razed, and unceremoniously at that. To say that its spirit endures in each of the myriad community gardens dotting New York City is only giving Mr. Purple his due. Likewise, Mr. Purple endures, but on the sunny morning he rode by me, he stopped his bicycle to root around in every trashcan he passed and felt with a bony finger inside the coin return slot of each pay phone. Though I was aware that this had long been his way through the world, I felt my spirit sink. I thought, ‘This isn’t how the world should be for a beautiful person.’ And for the first time in 25 years of opportunities, I felt a powerful need to connect with Adam Purple.

I introduced myself and said: “Mr. Purple, I just wanted to let you know that twenty years ago, you touched my life in a small, but profound way. It happened when they were trying to evict you from your garden…”

“Our garden,” Mr. Purple interrupted. “It wasn’t my garden, it was our garden.”

I shook my head, smiling. The man still had it.

“I was watching T.V.,” I explained, “and a reporter asked you if you were going to fight the city. You said – and this is what sticks with me – you weren’t interested in fighting people, you were interested in enlightening them.” I smiled again.

“Naaaaaaaaah,” Mr. Purple said, waving one hand. “You can’t enlighten people. Forget about it.”

Well then, that’s more like it. When an anomalous strand of experience like the enlightenment business is finally woven into the familiar grim tapestry, I am usually grateful. It makes me feel like life has symmetry, and if it has symmetry then maybe it has a purpose, and if it has a purpose, maybe its purpose is to teach me something. Upon later reflection, I tried to name one person in the last two decades whom I had enlightened. I could think of no one. I wondered if, in 1986, I should have just listened to Ivan Boesky and been done with it, and whether Mr. Purple had given me a new, more useful mantra to carry me through the next twenty years.

As we parted, Mr. Purple called to me: “Type the name ‘Adam Purple’ into your computer search engine sometime. You’ll see some beautiful pictures.” When I got home, I googled and clicked.

It was indeed a beautiful garden, more beautiful than I could have remembered.

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§ 5 Responses to “The Circle Be Unbroken”

  • […] „Garden of Eden“. Der Artikel „The Circle Be Unbroken“ von Albert Stern ist hier zu […]

  • […] and he stopped for a chat…..I tried to get a photo but memory was all full this photo is from The Circle be Broken       Remember The Garden….Watch the video really […]

  • brian hickman says:

    Great Story, i used to live on east 3rd street one building away from H.A. in say 79, 80 81, my girlfriend was going to SVA on 23 st and she found this apt i think from the Voice, coming from Huntington LI, it was a total shock to be thrust into the EV then , the music the art, Keith Haring, and his gang soon to be famous artists were working in the neighborhood above and below ground.I was a little nervous to go past Avenue A at first, it seemed a place just to buy dope, Then little galleries Gracie mansion the Fun Gallery, popped up, music, music,We used to go to the Binibon and was there the night before that maniac killed our waiter, surreal, looking back, Anyhow i could go on and on but the most extraordinary thing was first seeing Mr Purple riding his bike along 2nd Avenue,like a Mirage a positive glow amongst the very gritty hood, i felt blessed when he actually stopped to talk to me and when he acknowledged me upon future encounters even if it was a nod or a smile, i felt like i belonged, and was not sticking out like a sore thumb, ,Remember the purple footprints leading to one of his gardens!THe question i was wondering if he was still alive and where could he be living, maybe upstate NY perhaps Maybe somebody knows. Peace Brian.

  • Rodger says:

    Jeneane, his daughter was my partner. He has done a lot of good. Adam. Also done. Lot of damage.

  • Peter says:

    When I was in grade school (1972-1976), I would see Adam Purple and his kids on the bicycle path in Central Park. I didn’t know it at the time, but the manure (carriage horses) they were collecting was for his incredible garden(s). NYC was a much more interesting place then.

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