The video is only 20 seconds long, but it packs a punch: Boarded-up businesses, empty streets, graffiti, and, near the corner of Fourth Avenue and Bell Street, a single neon sign in the window of Yuki’s Diffusion hair salon.
It was nothing like what eight-time Olympic medalist Apolo Ohno remembered of growing up here, walking every inch of the Belltown neighborhood and eating burgers from the Two Bells Tavern after a long day spent amid the hair salon’s clients, washbowls and his single father Yuki’s watchful eye.
“The first time I watched the video, I shook my head,” Apolo Ohno said the other day from his home in Los Angeles. “There’s no one else on the street and no one else around and you can see everything boarded up.
“I had this sense of sadness, but also a deep sense of pride that my father’s light was still blinking in the window.”
So Ohno, now 38, retired from short track speed skating and a motivational speaker working on a book called “Hard Pivot,” posted the video on his LinkedIn two weeks ago.
“My father sent me this video of his shop near downtown Seattle,” he began the post. “He’s been there for nearly 40 years. Every day he arrives at his shop, cleans, prepares to see people – customers who he has known for longer than I’ve been on this planet.”
His father’s salon doesn’t make a lot of money, Apolo wrote, “but it gives him pride.”
He wrote of how Yuki Ohno arrived here from Japan without knowing a word of English or having a dollar to his name. It is a testament to his father’s work ethic, he said, that the salon has remained open for four decades, despite rain or darkness or COVID-19, which has been “all those things and more.”
But his father is determined, he wrote, ending with this message:
“As we go through this 2020 holiday season, find just one thing each day that can make you smile. Find one thing that reminds you of your life’s purpose and be present here and now.”
Yuki Ohno hadn’t seen the post the other morning, when he sat in a chair on the upper deck of his shop and listened to what his son had written about him, smiling all the while.
“That was nice,” he said after. And true.
Pride is part of what keeps Yuki Ohno going into the salon early every morning, and sometimes in the middle of the night. While the pandemic has shuttered some businesses permanently, boarded up others and silenced the hum that used to surge down this part of the city, he is determined to keep his shop open to clients and safe from the vandalism and theft that kicked up three or four months ago.
“It’s been the norm,” Yuki Ohno said. “And so fast. I have never seen it so ugly. You just can’t ignore it. You have to see it every day.
“I decided, I have to be here, too. I have to be part of it. I have to keep an eye on my premises.”
The neon sign bearing his name has been broken three times. His door has been damaged twice when someone tried to break in. One day, when Ohno was in the back of the salon, a man came in with a trash bag and cleared a shelf of products into it, then ran out. Ohno chased after the man, who dropped the bag.
Seattle Police Department (SPD) crime statistics show that while robbery and aggravated assault are down in Belltown and downtown neighborhoods, burglaries have spiked, from 473 and 493 in 2018 and 2019 respectively, to 597 through October 2020.
And for Ohno’s business address — the shop is located in the base of the Sunrise Tower low-income apartments for seniors — there have been 39 calls to 911, from disturbances to trespassing to prowlers, and from weapons to crisis to robbery.
“A little bit of everything,” said SPD Sgt. Randy Huserik. “It’s a little high, but there’s a lot less traffic in the neighborhood, so you’re seeing an increase of problems there.”
Neither Ohno wants to make a political statement here. They aren’t in the business of telling governments what to do. But through Apolo’s post, and his father’s refusal to let his salon close, they hope to shed light on what small-business owners are enduring — and how hard they are fighting to stay alive in the city that gave them life.
“There have to be millions of Americans who are in the exact same situation,” Apolo said, “who did board up and weren’t allowed to open and maybe closed for the first time.”
This is a quieter part of Fourth Avenue, less than a mile beyond the retail core, where the Seattle Star, on the former Macy’s building, lights up the corner of Fourth and Pine, and Westlake Center is bathed in holiday lights.
And yet, it is the same street where the father and son traveled in an open car for the Seattle’s annual Torchlight Parade, in which Apolo — fresh off his gold- and silver-medal wins in the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City — served as Grand Marshal.
“When the city has a dignitary, they always use Fourth Avenue,” Yuki said. “This is the street for that purpose.”
Yuki won’t say how old he is (“That is a total mystery,” he said), but his son knows, and can’t believe it. He isn’t telling either.
“I will tell you he is a lot older than you think he is,” Apolo said, adding that he only knows because he helped his father get a new passport a few years back.
“I’m looking at the birthdate, and I’m like, ‘What?'”
The two haven’t seen each other since last December, when they spent time at a lodge for the holidays. Apolo has asked his father to move to Los Angeles, where he has done some acting, sports commentating and won “Dancing with the Stars,” but Yuki wants to stay in Seattle.
So they talk every day, Apolo a little fretful and Yuki waving him off.
“These crazy stories,” Apolo said. “I ask him, ‘Why are you going and getting up and standing guard at 2, 3 in the morning? That’s what insurance is for.’ And he says, ‘This is my shop and I am ultimately responsible.’
“I get worried, but at some point, there is this surrendering to the worry. My dad is the way that he is and I support him.”
It inspires Apolo. His father always has.
“He is motivated by things that wouldn’t motivate me,” he said. “When I am distracted by tech deals or real-estate possibilities, my father is a stark and strong reminder of real grit and resiliency.”
His post, he said, was also intended to soften the country’s divisiveness.
“I just wanted to write something that wiped away all the noise,” Apolo said. “This is what’s important and this is where the fight is, and I just want it to resonate with people.
“My father’s work ethic, that he is living the American dream and is still here,” he continued. “And to find gratitude, even if you’ve had the most horrendous of years.”
Along with standing up to the vandals and would-be thieves, Yuki Ohno is fighting the quiet. He wants people to come downtown.
“Don’t feel scared off by the news, that it’s better not to come downtown,” he said. “I try to fight that perception. People love this city. It’s a beautiful city. We can’t let those ugly things continue.
“So I am here, windows open,” he said. “The light is still on.”