In South Seattle, a DIY small business crime deterrent
Suarez: "Seattle is the hardest place anywhere for small business. " Credit: Eric Scigliano
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.
Each time, Edouard called the police. At first, he says, they told him to call his insurer. But you can only call so often and drive your rates up so far before you’re working for the insurance company, not yourself.
Then the police advised him to install video cameras. He spent $2,000 on a system. The thieves smashed the cameras, but he still retrieved the footage. He thought it showed the culprits clear as day, but, he says, the cops told him “it wasn’t good enough for evidence — I need to spend $10,000 for high definition. I say I can’t afford that.”
Then, he says, the police made an alarming suggestion: “They said, ‘You should get a gun and sleep here and wait for them. I say, ‘I don’t want to leave my home and come here to kill somebody. I don’t believe in guns. That’s not my value.'”
You may think that sounds incredible. I thought so until a few weeks ago when it appeared someone had kicked in my backyard gate. The officer who responded made a suggestion: “Have you thought about getting some protection?” Are you telling me I should get a gun? I asked. “I have a gun and a dog in my home,” he replied. “You’ll have to decide what you want.”
Edouard got the idea of a dog not from the police but from the animal control officer who answered a complaint about a barking dog at the auto-glass shop across the street. “He told me, ‘Go to the shelter, get a dog and keep it in your yard. Those people will leave you alone.'”
He got the pit bull, named Ice, first. But Ice was too nice; he preferred tail-wagging to barking. So Edouard got another dog, a shaggy-maned German shepherd named Blackie. She was a barker, and Ice followed her lead, though he still wagged his tail as they woofed up a storm at passersby. It became an evening greeting: When I was pedaling home, they’d chase along noisily on their side of the fence.
Whether they’d actually have tackled anyone climbing the fence, I can only guess. They apparently never had to; the thefts stopped. Better yet, the pimps, peddlers and thugs who’d stalked the sidewalk and shot out the glass in both the bus stop and Edouard’s windows moved on. The spotter who would loiter up at my corner, scanning for customers and cops, also disappeared. Edouard claims the low-lifes moved down to the Rainier and Henderson area, precipitating a notorious (and lately resurgent) series of shootings there. Metro also moved the bus stop around that time, which likely helped precipitate the move. But nothing kills an illicit buzz like two big dogs snarling a few inches away.
Unfortunately, the low-lifes weren’t the only ones Ice and Blackie bothered. Seattle Animal Control collected complaints, sent Edouard letters and then sent out inspectors — a process that can seem excruciatingly slow if you’re on the complainant side of the question. I happened to meet one complainant, a schoolteacher, at a local crime prevention meeting. He was a determined, take-no-guff kind of neighborhood defender — my kind of guy.
Edouard told Animal Control if he had to get rid of his dogs, he’d shut down. The city pressed the case; he had a court date next month. Rather than waiting, he rolled a shipping container onto the lot, crammed it full of hoists, compressors, bumpers and other tools and spare parts, and sent it off to Conakry, Guinéa’s capital. There, he says, he’ll start an auto-body program at the local technical school and spend some of his time training a new generation of fender-unbenders in his homeland. He’ll spend most of his time fishing and generally relaxing in Texas. His wife, who had long urged him to leave the stress of the business and the location, has taken a job as CTO of a cloud-computing startup in Dallas.
“I really love Seattle,” he says. “It’s my country. And I don’t want to retire. I would like to go until I’m 65. But it’s not good for my health. Seattle is the hardest place anywhere for small business. Taxes, environmental regulation, everything. They don’t give you an inch. The dogs are the last straw. I don’t want to give another penny to the city.”
Edouard is in Dallas now. So is Blackie the German shepherd. Ice the pit bull has stayed with one of Edouard’s employees, who’s finishing the cleanup. He now hunches behind the gate, a picture of bereavement, pining for Blackie. He does not bark or wag at passersby.
Will the pimps and dealers return now that the canine guard detail has disbanded? Even if they don’t, I won’t look at pit bulls or barking dogs in quite the same way.
We may soon have plenty of barking dogs down at the corner, though they’ll more likely be golden Labs. What’s slated to replace Brighton Beach Motors? A doggie day kennel.