Shiga's Garden: fittingly, a story of sunshine and cooperation

Volunteers, artists, and an absentee landowner are together creating a P-Patch honoring the father of the University District Street Fair.
Crosscut archive image.

Andy Shiga, right, and other Evergreen Milk Cooperative employees in 1954

Volunteers, artists, and an absentee landowner are together creating a P-Patch honoring the father of the University District Street Fair.

Urban vegetable gardening brings together the primal elements of earth, air, water, and sunfire with kibitzing passersby who pause on the sidewalk to ask the gardener picking beans, “Is the blue-gray monster over there actually food?" (“Yes, Brussels sprouts.”)

For a community garden project on University Way, Stacey Gianas is bringing together all of the above, plus many more unlikely garden-bedfellows. Several of her neighbors — along with a generous property owner in Taiwan, local artists, business owners, street kids, city departments, a herd of goats, and pedestrians who impulsively, irresistibly, stop to pitch in — have all been transforming a blackberry-choked vacant lot near the north end of University Way Northeast into a place where food and flowers can grow. The peaceful, communal nature of this effort would have delighted Andy Shiga, founder of the University District Street Fair, which celebrated its 40th anniversary in May. So it’s altogether fitting that this P-Patch will be named in his honor: “Shiga’s Garden.”

Andy’s son Alfred talked with me the other day about what it was like to grow up with a father who was as deeply committed to community happiness as to the family’s business success. The business endeavors included Shiga’s One World Shop, still located just south of University Bookstore on The Ave. “One World” did more than signal the store’s inventory of imported merchandise — it defined Shiga's philosophy of life.

Alfred summed up his father’s ethic: “Dad was a pacifist and conscientious objector. He had strong feelings about the futility of war, the tragedy and sadness of it. His mother, who was a nurse during the Russo-Japanese War, showed him pictures of the war-injured, so he had no illusions about what war was really like. His belief in peace made him a big proponent of dialogue between people.”

During 1969 and 1970, rising protests against the Vietnam War were inflamed by the U.S. invasion of Cambodia and the killing of four Kent State students demonstrating against the conflict. In Seattle thousands of University of Washington students marched against the war, and violence periodically erupted in the U District, with rioters smashing shop windows along The Ave. Endeavoring to bring people together, Andy Shiga proposed holding a peaceful fair “to create one small situation in which people will be encouraged to cross over various social and psychological boundaries, to stimulate the growth of openness, humor, love, and compassion amongst people, which is the real basis for a rational, free, and healthy world.”

Said Alfred, “The Street Fair was an extension of Dad’s philosophy. He was a proponent of conversation, which included when I did something bad — we’d sit down and talk about what I did, and not just for 10 minutes. He believed that through greater understanding between individuals, huge group conflicts could be avoided. And he had a sharp wit and a silver tongue that could convince people.” Andy persuaded U District Chamber of Commerce members, UW students, the Seattle Parks Arts & Crafts division, and others to sponsor a two-day “University District Sidewalk Fair: Interworld Arts” on an Ave that would be closed to vehicular traffic. “My dad was like water flowing over rocks,” Alfred mused. “It takes a long time to wear rocks down, but they wear down eventually.”

Smoothing the stony places in U District community life was a regular part of his father’s daily round. Alfred explained, “When I was growing up, Dad would walk up and down The Ave on errands, with me and my two little brothers in tow. On the way to the bank he’d meet somebody and stop to talk. We’d stand there while he talked. And talked. He was always smiling. There’s a photo of my father in front of a milk truck, standing next to a white man and a black man, from when he drove a truck for Evergreen Milk Cooperative. He had all kinds of friends — white, black, Chinese-American, everybody.”

Now Stacey Gianas, 28, is developing her own water-flowing-over-rocks technique. After wondering for several years about the chain-link fenced lot across the street from her apartment, Gianas, who has a UW degree in conservation biology, decided that she would try to reclaim this jungle of blackberry canes that was gradually filling up with items even less perishable — a grocery cart, a TV, castoff clothing, lumber — and turn it into a community garden.

Gianas has marshaled creative, evolving, unarmed forces to achieve the goal collectively. “In land restoration,” she told me, “if you don’t get different people involved, no project will work.” Contacting the owner of the lot was an intricate dance, because he lives in Taiwan, but Gianas finally located his accountant, based in Seattle, who persuaded the landowner to sign a rent-free lease through 2012 with Seattle’s P-Patch program. A next-door neighbor agreed to let P-Patch install a water sub-meter for irrigation. The Goat Lady in Duvall donated a herd of goats for three days, which made short work of the blackberry leaves. And now the roots are surrendering to volunteers who wield shovels loaned from other P-Patch sheds and wear work gloves donated by Stewardship Partners. A Japanese torii gate was donated and installed by artist Richard Lemmert. Cedar Grove Composting will donate 50 yards of compost.

On my way home from U Bookstore one recent afternoon I stopped to dig awhile beside a UW student interested in organic agriculture, while Gianas and husband Patrick Sowers fed blackberry canes into a wood chipper. The student had noticed the work going forward in the lot each time she visited her voice coach in the studio across the street, and now she pitches in after singing lessons. A young woman with an Eastern European accent and some mean blackberry-cane clippers told me she worked there regularly in hopes of earning a garden plot. A crew of at-risk kids from the University District Youth Center, where I’ve volunteered in the past, joined me at last Saturday’s work party, and homeless youth from Sanctuary Art Center are planning some Japanese-style artworks for the space. It’s hoped that when the lease runs out in 2012 the landowner will let the city acquire the property, perhaps with Pro-Parks Levy funds, so that the project will become permanent. Volunteers and donors are invited to check Gianas’s work party schedule and come to 5520 University Way NE, two doors north of the University Theater.

Besides the generous, peacefully collaborative energy creating Shiga’s Garden, there are other reasons why dedicating a P-Patch to Andy Shiga appeals to his son. “My mom grew vegetables in our yard, and our family ate organic food," Alfred Shiga said. "Dad was a health nut. He went running every morning with me and my two brothers. He was a fitness nut when there weren’t any, before Jim Fixx and jogging. One family joke was my dad had kids so he’d have running partners. We’d run around Green Lake, or up to Capitol Hill. It was a lot of work. ‘C’mon, let’s go!’ he’d say, and we were off. The conversation kept on running, too.”


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