Danny Woo Community Garden on South Main Street in 1992 • Courtesy of Shirley Cheng

The University of Washington (UW) will continue building on its deep history with the Danny Woo Community Garden —  the largest green space in the Chinatown International District (CID) — by adding four new structures to the garden designed by UW Landscape Architecture students Kathy Summers and Brandon Halkitis for their capstone project.

Tom Im, Deputy Director of InterImCDA, the organization that manages the garden, said, “90% of the infrastructure you see there outside the retaining walls has been a contribution by the UW School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture or students of those departments.”

The first new design is a handrail along the central stairway leading into the garden from the north, with planting plots attached to chicken wire lining the bottom. A canopy fence will also be installed in the compost area, as well as a retaining fence added to the northwest and southeast sides of the garden. The last design is a new open-roof pavilion overlooking the entire property with banners hanging from the lintels. The new structure will be called the Memorial Pavilion.

Design plans for Memorial Pavilion • Courtesy of KaeLi Deng

“Community members can come and write down their stories or put pictures and drawings that they like and also write some history of the garden or the history of the neighborhood,” said KaeLi Deng, the Danny Woo Community Garden manager, regarding the banners.

Although the designs for these projects are completed, construction has yet to begin. A group of Eagle Scouts are leading the handrail project and are currently in the process of raising funds to buy materials to start the installation process.

The garden currently has around 100 farming plots, a chicken coop, an outdoor oven pit, a tool shed, and fruit tree orchards all spread across 1.5 acres of land. Towards the base of the garden trees and bushes fill the landscape while windy stone-paved paths guarded by wooden frames — the two gates at the entrance, the rolling theater seats, trellises, and handrails — lead you further up the garden. As Im alluded to, most of these structures were designed by UW students.

Design for the compost area and canopy fence • Courtesy of KaeLi Deng

The trailblazer for the UW design projects was Leslie Morishita, InterIm CDA’s Real Estate Development Director. She was inspired to work with the InterIm by a conversation with Bob Santos — a well-known civil rights activist in the CID — when she was getting her master’s degree in architecture at UW.

“He gave a presentation about the Danny Woo Garden and how it was built by volunteers and how he got the land donated for $1 a year,” she remembered. “And I just thought it was such a wonderful and inspiring story. It really grabbed me. So I reached out to InterIm CDA after that.”

She went on to design and build a tool shed located in the center of the garden as an independent study project in 1989, which uses the bypass system of wood post-and-beam construction.

“Everything bypasses, so the joints are not so vulnerable to rot, which is really a big deal in this climate where it’s very moist. And then also, and it really goes with the flow of the properties of wood, and how wood ages,” Morishita said. 

Bypass architecture is when the ends of the wood members do not bud into other members, instead overlapping to form a strong yet flexible connection. This allows the structure to breathe and makes it more durable against earthquakes since there are no rigid joints, making it easier to adjust to seismic movement. This bypass design is a traditional Japanese architectural concept that can also be seen across Asia.

“The idea was to create a kind of architectural or design vocabulary out there that was very appropriate for the Pacific Northwest, and had an Asian flavor,” Morishita explained.

These structural concepts became the basis for the designs that followed the tool shed. After completing this project, Morishita sought to expand the opportunities for UW architectural students to gain hands-on experience in the design and building process.

She contacted Steve Badanes, a Professor at the UW School of Architecture who famously designed the Fremont Troll and Kobe Terrace in Seattle, to lead a design/build studio program at the garden. “[Badanes] said, ‘Yeah, if you can recruit the students, I’ll do it,’” recalled Morishita.

The first UW design/build studio project led by Badanes was an open pit oven constructed in front of the tool shed in 1990 as an outdoor cooking facility. InterIm CDA hosts an annual pig roast there, which has been open to the public every summer since 1975.

“That was a spring design/build studio. And then it just kept going, because there were more and more needs in the garden.”

University of Washington students in 1992. Shirley Cheng, reporter Tin Pak’s mother, is pictured second in from the bottom right • Courtesy of Shirley Cheng

Many of the other structures at the Danny Woo Community Garden were a result of subsequent UW design/build studios. Most notably, a team of around 15 students along with two supervisors in 1992 designed, built the two wooden gates and their decorative trellises that sit on top of the concrete pillars leading into the garden at the South Main Street entrance. They also built the concrete retaining wall across the base of the entrance, paved some of the paths that run through the area, and added some more public seating.

“We helped to establish the entrance of the garden by making it more visible and welcoming to the public through the location and design of the structures. Also, the seating areas provided a good resting area for visitors,” reflected Shirley Cheng, a UW architecture undergraduate student at the time, who was part of the project. “[The garden] was for the community, that is why it is important. It was also special for me to be able to add to the rich history of the neighborhood.”

Morishita’s tool shed inspired the use of the bypass design concept for the main gate and trellises. For example, the two posts of the main gate are a series of overlapping wood beams that bypass one another, similar to Jenga blocks, making the structure lighter and more open.

This gate has a resemblance to traditional Japanese Torii gateways because of the two crossbars that sit on top of the posts and the minimal use of nails.

“Northwest architecture in general is very influenced by Japanese designs. A big reason is the large Japanese population in Washington,” said Cheng.

The South Main Street entrance to the Danny Woo Community Garden in 1992 Courtesy of Shirley Cheng

The garden’s strong relationship with the UW remains strong today. Now, the UW Community Engagement Leadership Education Center provides work-study opportunities for students interested in volunteering there. Deng currently supervises two students from this program.

“We have daily tasks, which include weeding and watering the plants, of course in summer, but not in winter, and re-mulching the pathway, while picking up trash, and also cleaning up the compost,” Deng said.

Furthermore, the garden continues to serve as a vital community infrastructure for residents in the neighborhood. It helps people, particularly immigrants from Asia, maintain their cultural heritage.

Jeff Hou is a professor at the UW College of Build Environments and has dedicated a section of his book titled Greening Cities, Growing Communities to the Danny Woo Community Garden. He said that the garden is unique because it serves mainly pan-Asian Americans so it has a very strong cultural identity. The gardening plots are primarily cared for and cultivated by elderly Asian CID residents, many from all over Asia can be found farming their native crops there.

“Some of them even brought seeds with them or they get seeds from their home country, then they save their seeds from their plants every year so they can continue to grow those vegetables,” said Morishita.

Moreover, for many of the immigrants in the CID, the garden is a social institution that helps them make friends and develop a connection with the neighborhood.

“One of the gentlemen that we talked to, told us about how he was able to make all his friends in the garden. He was somebody who was new to Seattle, just arrived not too long ago at the time, and he lived very close to the garden. The garden was how he was able to be with his friends and have a social life,” said Hou.

Morishita adds: “It’s putting down roots that enable them to put down roots and feel they belong. Both, literally and figuratively.”

Design plans for the free forage/rest area • Courtesy of KaeLi Deng

UW’s shared history with the Danny Woo Community Community Garden and the continued efforts in helping to develop the space is an inspiring story of how people with common interests and passions can create a unique cultural landmark.

Im concludes by saying, “We’re always interested in getting people to come up to the garden to enjoy the space, eat lunch, participate in our events. If they want to help contribute, we’re always looking for volunteers to help out. Just contact myself or our garden manager [KaeLi Deng].” 

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