At the top of a hill near Kobe Terrace Park in the Chinatown-International District sits a hidden emerald gem: the Danny Woo Community Garden. Within the one-and-half-acre green space, dozens of pairs of hands till their individual garden plots, growing beans, pattypan squash and bok choy. The garden is a calming oasis with views of iconic Seattle structures such as the Smith Tower. Since 1975 it has helped provide the surrounding elder community with a place to socialize, stay active and maintain food security.
“Over 90 percent of our gardeners are low-income and a lot of them live in the low-income senior housing across the street. I think this definitely helps supplement the amount of produce that they are purchasing,” said Mei Yook Woo, who manages the garden. “They’re able to grow local, organic food that’s relevant to their identity at almost no cost.”
The exhibition “Seeds of Change, Roots of Power,” at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience is dedicated to educating visitors about the garden. It highlights the role it has played in the community, showcases past- and present-day photographs and in a video, gardeners share their excitement and satisfaction in being able to grow their own food.
“In our exhibit we talk a lot about storytelling and history. Then we encourage people to go up there and see the actual, physical, tangible results of that,” Tiffanie Lam with Wing Luke said. “It’s beautiful. It’s much larger than I thought.”
The garden is only a few blocks away from the museum. Since the exhibition opened, foot traffic to the garden increased, which is exactly what Woo hoped would happen.
“The garden is sort of tucked away. People don’t realize it exists even though we’re one of Seattle’s original community gardens.
This is really important for us to gain visibility and acknowledgement amongst the wider Seattle community,” Woo said. “It’s important for us to celebrate as a garden that is working alongside these marginalized communities.”
Woo works for InterIm Community Development Association, an organization founded by the late “Uncle Bob” Santos. His work in the neighborhood initially focused on affordable housing, recreation and health services. At the time, the Kingdome was under construction, and he wanted to preserve the identity of the district. In working with the community he realized there was another need that compelled his attention.
“Uncle Bob was reaching out to the members of the community who were largely elders, immigrant, non-English-speaking elders. He noticed that a lot of them had these little window boxes where they were growing as much food as possible. In connecting with them he realized they needed a place to grow food,” Woo said. “This garden was built out of a sense of responsibility to meet our community’s needs. That’s something we continue to this day.”
According to InterIm, Santos approached Danny Woo, a local businessman, about leasing his hillside property for the garden. Danny Woo eventually agreed to lease the organization the land for the low price of $1 per year. The deal, formed four decades ago, is still meeting the needs of the community.
“It’s a great place for me to take a deep breath, connect with the people and get outside of the computer zone, and I really enjoy that,” said Mei Yook Woo. “I just love that we have a variety of different community members from elder gardeners to young people and visitors from outside of the community. As well it’s a place for the homeless and the transient community to gather, which I think is really important.”
There are 100 plots in all and each is approximately 4x8 feet in size. About 65 gardeners utilize the garden. They’ve maximized the space they’re allotted by using structures like a trellis to grow food vertically. According to InterIm, the garden represents an array of cultures and nationalities: Chinese, Taiwanese, Korean, Mexican and European-American. There’s also a children’s garden to encourage intergenerational connection.
The garden prioritizes low-income neighborhood residents who are older than 65. Nearly 300 volunteers help in the garden each year.
Woo is at the garden nearly every day and has developed relationships with the gardeners. They’ve showered her with delicious vegetables but one thing they aren’t divulging is their secret to creating a bountiful harvest.
“The one gardening tip that I’m really trying to pick up right now but everyone is very tight-lipped about is their fertilizing method. Which are a traditional Chinese method of fertilizing that uses either anaerobic composting, so a lot of meat composting or they’re actually doing human waste processing,” Woo said. “I’ve been trying really hard to figure out how they make this fertilizer that they keep in buckets that line their plots but everyone just sort of smiles at me and laughs.”
For more on the garden and a map of the walking tour, go to dannywoogarden.org. The exhibition is open until Jan. 15, 2017.