A transformation has been underway in Columbia City’s business district, but the neighborhood was shaken June 5 as shots were fired midday on a busy street. Now residents and businesses look to move on.
On a gorgeous spring evening, on a busy Columbia City street filled with people, a man rose from the open sunroof of a Chrysler sedan and exchanged gunfire with someone in a passing car.
Inside Molly Moon’s Ice Cream — opened just days before — people hit the floor. A couple dropped to the sidewalk and turned the stroller holding their baby on its side, as a shield. Employees of the El Sombrero Family Mexican restaurant locked the door. And insurance agent Jeffrey Taylor crawled across his corner office on all fours, “Army style,” he told me.
But no one — not a single person — was hit. A miracle.
The incident is still under investigation, according to Seattle police spokesman Lt. Sean Whitcomb, and was one of a spate of gun-related incidents in South Seattle that started in early May.
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There were 85 shots-fired cases in South Seattle this year — almost half of all of Seattle, and most of them gang-related.
“In this case, we believe that the violence was targeted,” Whitcomb said of the Columbia City shootout. “This was not a random act. And as you can imagine, our detectives are very interested in getting these people off the streets.”
Targeted or not, the 43 rounds that flew June 5 seemed to carry a message for the residents and businesses of Columbia City: not so fast.
In the past year, this self-proclaimed Mayberry of South Seattle has undergone a major transformation. Along with new residents, rising home values and a bustling light-rail station, the neighborhood has seen the opening of a Rudy’s barbershop, a Pagliacci Pizza restaurant and Molly Moon’s — tent-pole businesses that mark a certain Seattle sense of establishment.
Then last Monday evening, suspected gang members — seemingly forgotten in the whiff of waffle cones and pizza dough — made themselves known.
“It was like, ‘We don’t care. We don’t care,’ ” said Trisha Gilmore of the Retroactive Kids toy store, located along the Columbia City strip.
Business has been great in the past year, she said. In the days after the shooting, things slowed down.
“We’ve been in a little bubble,” Gilmore said. “This shattered that little bubble a little bit.”
The Wink optical shop across the street is, thankfully, closed on Mondays. Employees came in Tuesday morning, though, to find glass sprayed all over the floor. A bullet had come through one of the upper windows, and there were spent shells found by the door.
“It’s hard to say, ‘Oh, it’s just the South End,’ ” said manager Soozee Cook. “We shouldn’t have to live like that.”
Taylor, who has been selling insurance in the neighborhood for years and lives within walking distance, called the shooting “a reality check.”
“It’s still the haves and the have-nots,” he said, noting Columbia City’s history of being not only racially diverse, but socioeconomically spread out.
For the most part, that’s a good thing. That’s something to be proud of.
“Bill Gates and Pookie can drink in the same bar in this neighborhood,” Taylor said. “And every once in a while, it blows up.”
Nothing vanquishes the sound of gunfire, though, like the sound of schoolchildren counting to 90 — the time it takes for a pizza to bake in the oven at Tutta Bella.
I stopped into the restaurant the other morning to find a group of kids from Hawthorne Elementary learning about pizza. And there was Joe Fugere, the founder of the five-restaurant chain. He grew up on Beacon Hill and has been in Columbia City for more than a decade.
Fugere was the first to put outdoor seating on this stretch of Rainier Avenue. It was his customers, he said, who witnessed, recorded and notified the city of drug deals being conducted at the bus stop across the street. (The stop has since been moved.)
“This happens in waves,” Fugere said of gun violence. “We see it come and go. I don’t want to put blinders on, but crime exists everywhere.
“It’s not that we shouldn’t be concerned, but it should not keep us from our livelihood.”
Consider that Rainier Avenue was once a state highway that only a few years ago got narrowed from four lanes to two as part of the city’s “road diet.” The place is still considered a thruway for those getting from one neighborhood to another.
And that’s the thing; Columbia City is historically a pass-through.
But it’s now a destination.
That tug of war is what played out in the middle of a spring evening last week.
But this neighborhood, well, it’s special, Fugere said. The streets will stay active in the best way. The people here will make sure of it.
“Three days later, we’ve got kids from the local elementary school,” he said. “Life goes on. We pause, we contemplate, we think about it. And we move on.”