By Michael Neill
September 15, 1986 12:00 PM

There once was, in the saddest part of a great city, a man dressed entirely in purple who had long gray hair and a flowing white beard, and who listened to the Earth and heard its pain. So he planted a garden amid all the crumbling buildings, the crime and the junkies and the hookers. Several times a day, he carried manure for it down from Central Park on his bicycle, a round trip of about 15 miles, and he ground rubble into sand to mix with the manure. The garden grew and grew until it covered five lots, with 15,000 square feet of virgin topsoil. It was open to all his neighbors, who would pick tomatoes, corn, cucumbers and flowers; the man, who called himself Adam Purple, named it the Garden of Eden. Like the first Adam, he hoped his garden would live forever and prosper. But the city had other plans; it wanted to plow up Eden and replace it with low-income housing, although the city was filled with buildings that needed fixing and had very few public gardens. And so, last January, bulldozers came and the garden on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, like the first Eden, was no more. That was when the purple footprints began to appear in profusion on the city’s streets.

They were made late at night, and at first there was no discernible motive. They were there one dawn around City Hall, another morning at Saks Fifth Avenue, and outside the city’s newspapers’ buildings. New Yorkers, who like anything strange, liked them. But who made them? the people wondered. And why?

And now come the answers: They are the work of an artist named George, and he makes them because he has fallen under Adam Purple’s spell and shares his dreams about renewing the earth. George is in salvage, an allied trade. He keeps his last name to himself, there being a good chance that the city has a law against putting purple footprints on streets. His operation is his protest against the destruction of Adam Purple’s Eden. “I intend to keep doing it,” he says, “until they arrest me or there is some movement by responsible parties toward restoring the garden.” George has taken his campaign to the scenes where Adam Purple’s defeat was played out—the City Housing Authority, the courthouse where Adam lost his last appeal—and he painted three rows around the vanished garden. “There aren’t too many construction sites with purple feet surrounding them,” he says. “I’m trying, psychologically, to heap enough muck on the bulldozers to stop them.”

When George did his first foot work, in Washington Square, he had a primitive method of application involving paint cans and ski poles with boots on them. Now he has automated somewhat, using “a rolling drum with foam rubber footprints attached.” He camouflages his contraption, although he prefers not to say how. “I use Occupational Safety and Health Administration-certified paint,” he says. “Each of the OSHA colors means something: red for danger, yellow for caution, green for safety. The purple means radioactivity.” When he runs out of purple (he has six cans left), he’ll move on to green—in the form of a vine lacing around the feet. Other people in the neighborhood where the garden used to be have now pitched in, stenciling rabbits, crabs—”everything that used to live in Manhattan and now does not,” Adam says—around the prints.

George has believed in Adam Purple for four years now. “I became involved with the garden the minute I saw it,” he says. “I wondered at the power within him to do this. This neighborhood was probably the most degraded, and here in the midst of it all was a beautiful, pristine garden with flowers and food. Adam began something life-affirming. This man actually has a plan for restoring the earth.” The city can’t see that: It is now trying to evict Adam Purple from his building next to where the garden was. It can be discouraging. After the bulldozing, George says, “I wanted to leave New York. But now I’ll do the vine and see what happens….” He and Adam Purple would even settle for a new site, maybe east of Eden.