Community Grows with Garden

SU professor celebrates rich history of community garden with new exhibit

Written by Tina Potterf
Photography by Chris Kalinko
January 26, 2016
Rob Efird walks among the tidy rows of squash, bok choy, tomatoes and onions sprouting from rich soil in a community garden that is a horticultural hidden gem in Seattle’s urban core.

This little slice of green paradise—the Danny Woo Community Garden—is one that Efird knows well, as an educator and researcher who has worked with the garden over the past 10 years. During that time, he has introduced students to the elders and children who garden there and documented what this garden means to them.

“This is an oasis in the middle of an urban desert,” Efird says of the garden, which is a cultural touchstone just south of campus and the subject of a new exhibit that will open in early March at the International District’s Wing Luke Museum. 

In collaboration with InterImCDA, the community-based organization that manages the garden and provides low-income housing in the neighborhood, Efird proposed and helped design the exhibit, which is intended to showcase the garden’s history and contemporary significance.

“This exhibit is a great partnership for the museum, the garden and InterImCDA and a great way for the community to take a walking tour and learn about the pioneers who started it all,” says Michelle Kumata, exhibit director at The Wing Luke Museum.

Over the years, Efird has come to know many of the gardeners and recently interviewed several of them in Chinese for a research project funded by SU’s Center for Environmental Justice and Sustainability. He feels that the garden deserves to be better appreciated as a source of health, community and cultural traditions, a place to connect with nature and a model of sustainable urban agriculture.

Efird, a cultural anthropologist who chairs the Department of Anthropology, Sociology and Social Work, says the exhibit is “the culmination of more than eight years of work and my students’ community-based learning with InterImCDA.”

Recently, Efird won a College of Arts and Sciences Dean’s Research Fellowship that enabled him to hire an SU student research assistant, Taylor Burmer, who is creating an exhibit website with information about the garden and a collection of photographs curated from a “lush visual archive” that spans the garden’s history of some 40 years.

The garden has come a long way since its origins in the community activism of the 1970s. Community activist “Uncle Bob” Santos, who led InterImCDA and other organizations to fight for improved housing and health care, learned that the district’s elderly Asian American residents yearned for a place to garden and grow their culturally valued fruits and vegetables. Santos approached local businessman Danny Woo, who owned an undeveloped, blackberry-infested slope on the edge of Interstate 5, and persuaded him to rent InterImCDA the property for $1 a year. Efird explains what happened next:

“Then the hard labor really began: hundreds of volunteers and activists from all over the city got to work clearing the hillside, carving it into terraces reinforced by salvaged railroad ties and enriching the soil with horse manure from Longacres racetrack,” he says. “As the garden took root, a community blossomed. ‘Uncle Bob’ calls the garden ‘the glue that brought this community together.’”

The first planting was in spring 1975, with 40 garden plots. Today, that number has grown to nearly 90, with a dedicated space for a Children’s Garden that started in 2009. In true community spirit, hundreds of volunteers—including students in Efird’s classes—give their time to ensure that the garden continues to thrive.

“This community spirit lives on in the garden,” says Efird. “Elder gardeners from diverse cultural backgrounds find common ground there, sharing seeds, produce and gardening tips, while children from surrounding schools learn care for the earth and one another. I hope the exhibit will encourage more people to experience this amazing place.”

Learn more about the exhibit here.
The Wing Luke Museum in Seattle will exhibit the fruits of labor of Professor Rob Efird and his students around the history of the Danny Woo Community Garden.