You don’t have doubts, I ask Otmane Bezzaz? About a curse?
Bezzaz, a 48-year-old Moroccan immigrant, had just treated me to a rousing, defiance-in-the-face-of-adversity speech. We’re standing behind his charred restaurant Med Mix, which was burned in an arson Monday morning at Seattle’s notoriously trouble-wracked corner, 23rd and Union.
The previous two business owners at this spot were murdered, one in 2003 and the other in 2008.
People have long said the corner seems haunted — not by ghosts, but misfortune it can’t shake. It was here Aaron Roberts was killed by police in 2001, touching off weeks of protest. Where former Mayor Paul Schell was bashed in the face with a megaphone. Where the earthquake condemned the main building and where development in build-crazy Seattle always seems stalled.
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“The corner is mostly shuttered businesses or empty lots — a weed in the lush lawn of boomtown Seattle,” I wrote in a 2008 column.
Now, one of the hopeful businesses to flower since then has been torched. The arsonist first spray-painted what appeared to be an anti-gentrification message.
“Of course I have doubts. I may be crazy, but I’m not that crazy,” Bezzaz says. “Every single person I asked about coming here warned, ‘Don’t do it, that corner is too hard.’
“But I didn’t listen to them then. So I’m not listening to this now.”
Cameras captured a masked figure spray-painting the words “4 Pratt and Trayv” on the wall before pouring gas on the Med Mix building and lighting it. The fire burned the rear of the restaurant and left the rest with water and smoke damage.
“Trayv” obviously refers to Trayvon Martin, the teenager killed in Florida by a neighborhood watch volunteer. What the Med Mix has to do with that case is beyond me.
But the “Pratt” refers to Edwin Pratt, a slain black civil-rights leader in Seattle in the 1960s. The arsonist left those words on the exact spot as an old mural honoring Pratt. That mural was painted over a few years back when new owners bought the building.
Fairly or not, I’ve heard the demise of that mural invoked as yet another marker of the area’s gentrification. A symbolic “whitewashing” of the Central Area’s black history.
The man who painted over the Pratt mural isn’t buying that. The mural was so marred by graffiti it couldn’t be saved, says Ian Eisenberg, the building’s owner. And if this was a gentrification protest, why torch a business owned by a Moroccan immigrant who himself lives in the Central Area?
“This is just some idiot looking for a rationale for his vandalism,” Eisenberg said. “If it was a political statement, it doesn’t make any sense.”
Of course a lot of what has gone down at 23rd and Union over the years hasn’t made much sense.
Bezzaz says he definitely fretted about how the two owners before him were murdered. He’s heard all the theories about why the corner has had it so rough, from redlining to drugs to civic neglect. One customer insisted the corner was built on top of a Native-American graveyard. Which could mean it really is cursed.
But kicking cinders in his back parking lot Tuesday, Bezzaz said the corner actually is fine. He vowed to rebuild and reopen in a few weeks. He embraced the curse.
“I say it’s destiny, and you can’t run from destiny,” he said. “Somebody’s got to break the curse. I will.”
Then he was practical.
“Imagine if I leave now, because of this fire? Nobody would ever take this place again.”
Then, spiritual. Seemingly out of the Med Mix ashes we heard the sound of the muezzin singing a call to prayer. It was no miracle: Bezzaz, a Muslim, has programmed his smartphone to sound the prayer call five times a day.
He pulled the wailing phone from his pocket. “I better heed this,” he said. “I’m going to need it.”
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org