Roots Grow Deep in the I.D.


by Megan Hill
photo by Jill Lightner

The pig was special.

For the first time in its 33-year history, the Pig Roast’s special guest was organically fed and sustainably raised on a local farm. Held in June, the annual community celebration took place at the Danny Woo Community Garden in the International District.

Set back from Jackson Street’s bustle, garden’s 1.5 (rather vertical) acres host 100 separate plots for ID residents. Plots are given first to elderly members of the International District whose income falls below 30 percent of Seattle’s median.

Managed by Inter*im, the ID’s important community development association, the garden sits on a stack of terraces just below the Kobe Terrace Park. It’s often overlooked and hardly known by most Seattleites, but it’s there—and it’s important. Apple and cherry trees blossom in the summer, and gardeners grow traditional fare: bok choy, onion, garlic, watercress, and an array of vegetables and herbs. For them, it’s a way to keep healthy and active while retaining their traditions.

(Traditions that sometimes smell bad. The gardeners use two aromatic, homemade methods of fertilizing their plots. One recycles gardeners’ urine, stored in gallon jugs around the plots. Another involves fermented beans. Be advised.)

It’s a colorful place. The gardeners practice what garden manager Jonathan Chen once referred to as “guerilla gardening,” whereby they expand their plots into walkways or conceal the death of a neighbor from Chen and continue cultivating the plot. They’ll use any discarded piece of wood, bricks, or even pieces of furniture to construct trellises, to stake plants and to build fences around the mattress-sized plots.

“The garden gives a sense of home for a lot of residents,” said Hyeok Kim, executive director of Inter*im. “It gives them a connection to the homeland they left decades ago to come to the U.S.” It’s useful for elderly gardeners who “don’t have the option of spending lavishly on groceries. What can be more tangible or positive than healthy fruits or vegetables you grew yourself?”

For all that it’s useful, the garden also has its share of problems. It badly needs a several fundamental upgrades to keep serving the gardeners who depend on it. When the garden was built in 1975, the terraces were constructed with 1,200 donated railroad ties from Burlington Northern.

The ties are rotting, no longer holding in the valuable topsoil the gardeners so carefully cultivate. There are sometimes problems with the homeless, and drug dealers and prostitutes have made the garden their hideout. Used hypodermic needles and empty beer cans lie discarded in the overgrown brush.

All of that is changing. Inter*im has three stages of improvements slated, each priced at $125,000. Phase 1, completed in the fall, aimed to improve safety and accessibility in the garden. Phases 2 and 3 go in motion this spring, ending in fall 2011.

Garden Manager Jonathan Chen, who supervised Phase 1, was the intended subject of this Local Hero story. In September, Chen was in a serious bicycle accident that required several months of recovery. He should be back at work to oversee the remaining phases of work, and has been an important part of Inter*im since originally joining them a year ago.

“From a community standpoint, the garden manager plays an outreach position for all the seniors who garden there,” said Kim, who added that Chen sometimes has to resolve the gardener’s “border disputes.”

Gardening at Danny Woo “builds a sense of community—even when you’re in turf wars! It gives people an opportunity to connect with one another” in a way that isn’t forced or contrived, but naturally occurring as people garden next to each other,” said Kim. Chen, she said, “takes to heart the community building aspect of the garden.”

Chen has led groups of volunteers in the garden for some of the heavy, manual labor that’s needed. He’s cleaned up the paths to make them more accessible. He’s added new plots, including a children’s garden. This past summer, he oversaw a team of young people from AmeriCorps NCCC (National Civilian Community Corps) who removed a wall of the rotting railroad ties and built a new one of stone.

The improvements are just another chapter in the garden’s 33-year-old story. The story began in 1974, when Bob “Uncle Bob” Santos, then Inter*im’s executive director, approached a local businessman for help. Back then, Santos said, many elderly residents were trying to grow things in planter boxes on their windowsills.

The wealthy Woo was hesitant to “do business with a non-profit.” Santos, a fiery community activist, said Woo laughed at Santos’ suggestion of a $1 a year lease. “He almost choked on his pipe,” he said. Woo eventually relented, but the two never signed a lease, instead agreeing by a handshake. The Woo family still allows Inter*im to rent the land for $1 a year, and the space is named in his memory.

The garden has been about community since its inception. “No one had ever approached Danny Woo to contribute to the larger community. To me, that’s what making connections is all about. We don’t always think our neighbor will be willing to help us out,” Kim said.

The pig roast plays a similar community-building role, one that Chen found a way to make into an organic one as well. At the height of the growing season, Inter*im brings the community together for another tradition, this one derived from Filipino culture. Gardeners, friends and neighbors come to roast the pig through the night, taking turns rotating the spit as it slowly cooks over smoldering coals. The next day, everyone dines together in a potluck—the ultimate community meal.

“Our agency is about community building and giving neighbors a chance to connect,” Kim said. “I think the garden, more than anything else, gives people that opportunity.”

Danny Woo Memorial Garden

Located on South Main St, near Maynard Ave South in Seattle

To volunteer, contact the garden manager at 206-624-1802206-624-1802 or at

Megan Hill is a New Orleans native who found Seattle interesting and decided to relocate here.

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