Faculty Student Research: Danny Woo Garden

The Danny Woo Community Garden in Seattle’s historic Chinatown-International District has welcomed immigrants from Asia for more than 40 years. Professor Rob Efird enlisted the aid of student Taylor Burmer to prepare an exhibit about the unique aspects of the garden for the Wing Luke Museum. The exhibit, which opened in March, runs through March 2017.

Efird, chair of the Department of Anthropology, Sociology and Social Work, has been taking his Cultural Ecology and Geography classes to the Danny Woo garden since 2006. Interested in providing hands-on experiences for students, Efird soon developed a relationship with InterIm Community Development Association, the agency that manages the 1.5-acre site of community gardening space, public art, walking trails, and educational programs for children. 

“Each year, hundreds of volunteers help improve the garden for everyone to enjoy,” said Efird. “Our students help InterIm beyond maintenance to grantwriting and assisting with children’s programming.”

In addition to the rich diversity of the gardeners, the garden offers an important history lesson in civic activism.   

In the early 1970s, the community faced a major challenge as the county moved ahead with developing the Kingdome arena in the area. Concerned about impacts to the neighborhood, local residents successfully advocated to go beyond meeting the basic needs of adequate housing, social services, and health care.

“Their civic activism included a place to garden, someplace in the midst of this concrete jungle, one of the most green-starved communities in Seattle, where they could garden and grow produce that wasn’t available in Seattle at that time,” Efird noted.

From that humble beginning of 40 garden plots, the garden grew and became a model of sustainable urban gardening. Today’s gardeners, all International District residents, are predominantly low-income, elders originally from Asia. They grow fruits and vegetables and bring their families to share in community meals and cultural programs for children. Efird, a cultural anthropologist who speaks fluent Chinese, began interviewing the gardeners to document their experiences and perspectives. He soon developed a proposal to the Wing Luke Museum to do an exhibit on the garden, its history, and its contemporary significance.

“Researchers publish in scholarly venues that are read by academics but rarely seen by the public,” he said. “What better way to engage the public than to situate my research in a museum?”

As a junior Environmental Studies major Taylor Burmer jumped at the chance to be involved in the research.

“I’m really interested in exploring the relationship people have to the land and the environment around them,” she said. “The garden is where a largely immigrant population can stay in touch with their culture and their roots through growing vegetables and cooking food. It’s a chance for them to be at home in their new home. “

During the 12 months she worked on the project, Burmer examined more than 40 years of archival information, interviewed key people involved in the development of the garden, gathered images, met with the museum’s curator and advisors to shape the exhibit, and built the website that accompanies the exhibit. When the exhibit closes in March 2017, the website will be turned over to the InterIm to be housed in perpetuity.

“What makes the Danny Woo garden different is that it is truly a community garden,” she said. “It was started because of the demands of the people in the community, and it was built by the community for the community and continues to be maintained that way.”

Efird sees many benefits from the university’s work with the garden, community, and InterIm: “The exhibit and our relationship with the garden and gardeners are excellent examples of the kind of community-based learning that we prioritize in cultural anthropology--the kind of experience we want to give our students, the way we like to keep it real to make sure that their education at SU is connected to the world beyond our campus, the world they are going to go into after graduation.”

Published June 2016