This is the way the story would usually get told: At long last, a neighborhood eyesore and earsore is shutting down. The lot full of partially disassembled and reassembled cars is getting cleared out. One of the menacing junkyard dogs that would roar and yap at each after-hours passerby is gone. The other will leave soon. And peace and quiet will return to the neighborhood. All thanks to a steadfast neighborhood stalwart — a schoolteacher, no less — who persisted until he pushed this blighted operation out.
The real story, or at least the rest of the story, is very different. It’s a fable of life here in the 98118 — Southeast Seattle, the mythically “most diverse zip code in the United States” — and a healthy caution to gentrifying incomers like me with our genteel preconceptions and snap judgments about who the good and bad influences are.
There’s no question which side of the story I should be predisposed to. I have been known to call animal control and even the police about dogs barking incessantly and running wild. I don’t keep a lab or any other dog, but by all the usual indicators I fall on the latter side of the essential Seattle demographic divide: Are you a pit bull or golden labrador person? Is your neighborhood a pit bull or golden lab neighborhood?
Mine is solidly pit bull, though it changes quickly as you move away from Rainier Avenue and toward Lake Washington. My house is surrounded by resident bulls named Bubby, Adonis, Baby and Cujo. Two houses further up is a car with the bumper sticker, “Pit bulls don’t kill people. Assholes with pit bulls kill people.” The far end of the block is solid golden lab. Sometimes the lab folks walk their dogs past here, setting the yard bulls raging behind their chain-link fences.
The most raging of all were the aforementioned “junkyard” dogs at what was in fact an auto-body shop, a common feature on this stretch of Rainier Ave. Its owner, Edouard Suarez, is a tall guy from Guinéa, a West African nation that only makes the news here when ebola breaks out there. His hands bear the calluses of a thousand pounded fenders and pulled transmissions, but there the stereotypes end.
He kept a beautiful parrot in his office. His wife was, until recently, a highly placed hotshot at Microsoft. He’s a thoughtful, cosmopolitan guy — and a neighborhood stalwart too, in his way.
Edouard bought the lot and moved his auto-body business there from the Central District six years ago. Flush with newbie enthusiasm, he put up an unusually fancy sign showing a classic car and his new business name: “Brighton Beach Autobody and Sale.” Those who noticed the "Brighton Beach" wondered what this place had to do with Coney Island, but Edouard was always glad to explain: “I found out from the title that this neighborhood was called ‘Brighton Beach.’” That was way back in the 1880s, when English immigrants settled here and named the area running from Lake Washington to Beacon Hill between Seward Park and Rainier Beach after the Brighton Beach they left behind. Mossbacks, take note: Edouard was a historic preservationist, reviving a neighborhood’s dormant identity.
He also gave Brighton Beachers a special “neighborhood rate” on auto work. When my engine blew up after an uptown shop worked on it, he examined the parts and explained why “they owe you a new engine.” They stonewalled, but I cited what Edouard told me — and got a new engine.
Soon, however, he discovered that life wasn’t all tea and crumpets at this Brighton Beach. Prostitutes, drug peddlers and thugs congregated at the bus stop in front of his business. Thieves would clamber with depressing regularity over his 6-foot-high, razor-wire-topped fence and strip the cars. They’d strip cars and hoist the pieces over, or cut the fence and take even the engines. Once they boosted $4,000 worth of gilt custom Mercedes rims.
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