NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - Hundreds of people walked through the space between the Oculus and 3 World Trade Center, some pausing to glance up from their phones or conversations long enough to notice a recent addition: Two undulating wooden structures, one large and one small, containing what looked like stalks of grass.
"I walk past this almost every day," said Gillian Pardi, 25, a dog walker. "I noticed it a few weeks ago, and I keep seeing the little sprouts getting taller and taller."
But these are not mere sprouts or stalks of grass. They are rice plants.
The temporary rice paddy installation is the creation of Danielle Chang, Taiwanese-American founder of LuckyRice, a lifestyle brand, and the non-profit Lucky Chow, both of which promote Asian culture through a culinary lens.
Signs around the planters explain that rice provides more than one-fifth of the calories consumed worldwide by humans; that there are more than 120,000 varieties of rice grown globally; and that rice was used instead of mortar during part of the building of the Great Wall of China.
"When I thought about creating a public art installation in New York, which is something I've always wanted to do, I thought it would just be really disruptive to be able to plant a rice paddy right in the heart of New York City," said Chang, who has a background in art history and art curation. And she said it isn't a coincidence that the paddy is across from the 9/11 Memorial and Museum.
"We wanted to create something that amplified renewal through remembrance," Chang said. "And then you can talk about urban farming and issues of sustainability and responsible growing, climate change and how we're going to feed the world - because rice really is the grain that feeds the world."
Chang partnered with the Port Authority to plant the rice, which will continue to grow through to Sept 26, when it will be harvested for a feast atop 3 World Trade Center.
This isn't the first downtown harvest. The rice paddy is an echo of Agnes Denes' "Wheatfield: A Confrontation," an installation from 1982, in which the artist planted wheat atop the landfill that is now Battery Park City.
"'Wheatfield' was such a great recognition of, like, yes, you can produce this type of food that's typically in the Midwest here in New York, a block away from the World Trade Center, and this is what it looks like," said Jeremy Katich, Project Manager from ZH Architects, who built the wooden structure for the paddy. The company used sustainable cross-laminated timber strong enough to hold the several tons of soil and water necessary to grow rice.
Nick Storrs, a farmer who has grown several varieties of rice on Randalls Island for years, was hired to oversee the project. Storrs enjoys working with rice in particular because while Americans consume plenty of rice, many haven't actually seen it growing. "It's just food that comes in a 5-pound bag," he explained.
In April, Storrs started working with City-As-School, a public high school in the West Village, to plant Japanese, Uzbek, Italian, Madagascan and American rice seedlings in the school's greenhouse and hydroponic lab. Keyera McLaurin, 17, served as the project manager. She had never seen rice growing before.
"I actually learned that, you know, stuff that we eat really takes nurturing," McLaurin said. Throughout the spring, she checked on the seedlings daily. Then, in June, Keyera and her classmates helped transplant the seedlings downtown, where residents, professionals and tourists in the area started to take notice.
Nick Fabiano, 24, and Colleen Gates, 25, colleagues who work inside 3 World Trade Center, have been watching the paddy develop this summer. "I know rice is grown in paddies underwater; I've seen pictures online," said Fabiano, who, when he first walked by the installation, didn't know what he was looking at until he read the sign.
(Admittedly, the 20-metre urban paddy is quite humble compared to the lush images of terraced rice paddies in Southeast Asia.)
"I eat rice five out of seven days; it's one of my staples," Gates said. "It's so cool to watch; it's already grown so much from when they put it up a month ago." Reactions like these are exactly what Chang and Storrs were hoping for.
"I really like the idea of breaking rice from this role as a commodity," Storrs said, "where it's only a finished product and getting people to think about the origins of that food and the origins of that meal."
Of course, there are some people who know exactly what they are looking at. Kong-Min Lee, 10, who was visiting New York with his parents from South Korea, had no trouble identifying the plant. Although he didn't expect to see it on his trip to New York City.
"It's rice," he said. "But why is it growing here?"