Thoughts on a not-so-simple arson in the Central District

A sign posted outside Med Mix soliciting tips on the yet unsolved arson case. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

Why would someone want to burn down a beloved immigrant-owned business?

Early Monday morning, an arsonist struck the Med Mix restaurant on 23rd and Union, causing an estimated $90,000 in damage and forcing the restaurant to close for at least a month.

The details of the fire have already been hashed out by the Central District NewsKIRO TV, Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat, and the Stranger.

I’m upset that this happened in my neighborhood.

I was happy when Med Mix opened, bringing food I am familiar with to my neighborhood. Having a Moroccan-owned business just a couple blocks out my front door was the cherry on top.

But while the fire at Med Mix was tragic, it should not be swept aside by just calling it childish or simply criminal.

Twenty-third and Union is a complicated spot, like many others around Seattle. And this fire raises many questions beyond just “who did it?”

The person who set the fire left graffiti on a wall adjacent to Med Mix, referencing Trayvon Martin and ‘60’s civil rights leader Edwin Pratt, who was, until recently, featured in a mural on that same wall. The mural had been there since the ’90s, with more students and artists adding diverse celebratory histories to it over the past few years.

When the building, which housed neighborhood mainstay Thompson’s Point of View from 1986 to 2011, was bought in a speedy affair a couple years ago, one of the first things the new owner did was paint over the mural. Correction: The mural was painted over in May 2011, before the building sale took place.

Next was to cover the brick building with aluminum sheeting.

The same real estate investor, Ian Eisenberg, also owns the building that houses Med Mix.

The Med Mix business is owned by Otmane Bezzaz, a Moroccan immigrant who employs a diverse group of people, some of which have been working with him for twenty-some years at the Pioneer Square branch.

Otmane has been featured in a lot of coverage of the arson, reiterating his commitment to rebuild his business on the corner, but staying cautious not to speculate as to motivation for the crime.

(Photo by Alex Stonehill)

(Photo by Alex Stonehill)

But the mural cover-up and the land ownership issues raise many questions, some of which are immediate, while others are more broad — perhaps even existential.

What does it mean for land in the Central District to be owned by people who have no ties to the history of the area and who are mainly interested in profit?

What if that path to profit means transforming the CD into something many of those who currently live here do not want?

What does it mean to erase a history in a place while individuals and families are being pushed further south in order to afford the cost of living?

What does it mean for the black, African American, and immigrant small business owners at this intersection to have no other choice but to lease from landlords who can hike up the rent at any time and leave them hanging?

This wasn’t just the random work of a pyromaniac.

It happened at a time when properties on three of the four corners of 23rd and Union are in the process of rezoning, sale, and/or development. And the fourth has already been sold, rezoned, and is awaiting EPA approval for development of multi-use building.

Those changes threaten the livelihood of not only Med Mix, but the church, the gas station, Earl’s Cuts and Styles, the liquor store, the First Cup coffee standMena’s hair supply store, the 99 cent store, Louisiana Grill, and the Laundromat. Not to mention Cappy’s Boxing Gym, Cortona Café, and the other businesses around the area. All are businesses owned by African American, black, or immigrant individuals who have been in the neighborhood for years.

When I moved to Seattle, I chose to live here, in part because of the small immigrant, African, and African American businesses that surrounded me.

Once they’re gone, I still might stay. But I wonder, when will the day come when it is my turn to be erased?

alma khasawnih is an immigrant from Far West Asia. Detroit is the city she feels most affinity to, currently lives in Seattle, and wants to grow old in Barcelona. alma is a PhD student in Gender, Women, & Sexuality Studies at the University of Washington, her focus is street artists and graffiti art in Cairo's Arab Spring. She is interested and involved in Digital and Public Humanities. She finds it relaxing to color within the lines in coloring books.

7 COMMENTS

  1. Alma, I respect your opinions but you have so many of the facts wrong it is silly. I encourage you to reach out to me and at least talk to me about easily verifiable facts like dates, who covered up what mural, why the new siding, what is potentially being rezoned and other issues. Please just try to have an open mind.

  2. Alma-

    I grew up in the CD, have investments in the neighborhood and actively participate in its local charities. It is not just African American businesses that have added to the character of the neighborhood. Italian, Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese are only some of the major ethnicities of the folks that have lived and run businesses historically in the area.

    Anyone who is willing to invest, improve and contribute to the neighborhood should be welcomed and not criticized for “gentrifying” the area. Their race is not important.

    I believe that critiques such as your editorial are extremely counter productive to people that are hoping to start new businesses and add to the vitality of our City. If folks can also make some money (the goal of ALL businesses by the way) while doing so only benefits the CD and will improve the neighborhood’s vitality in the long run.

    Hopefully during your doctoral studies at the UW you learn not to have such a ethnocentric and “knee jerk” viewpoint.

  3. These “thoughts” read like a spoof of a common CD fixture: the leftist professional student “woman of color” who endlessly pontificates with little or nothing to say, sort of like the “Uptight Seattlite” column that used to be in the Seattle Weekly.
    The author’s bio says The city she feels most affinity to in the US is Detroit, a bankrupt city whose recent mayor is in prison for theft. Detroit would welcome the CD gentrifiers with open arms.
    I’m sure she is correct that many in the CD don’t want change, content living on govt. subsidies for generations, but many more do and that IS the history of this area, from Jewish to Japanese to black and now changing again for the better.
    Alma when you say This wasn’t just the random work of a pyromaniac.” do you know something we don’t? If so, the SPD would like to know I am sure.
    If not, why make a statement with no knowledge to back it up … oh, never mind that’s this whole load of bs from start to finish.

  4. You’re pretty sympathetic to this arsonist. Were they POSITIVE that no one was in the building at the time? Were they CERTAIN the fire wouldn’t spread to the neighboring buildings and maybe homes adjacent? You’re unbelievably naive and this is coming from some who probably shares a lot of your views on the problems with society and the way we ought to treat people. If this person wants to do something brave, organize a sit-in, protest, but setting a fire? Unconscionable.

    In other words, I’m wondering whether you think burning down a black man’s business this is the right way to fight to break the link between race and poverty in this country? Is it productive to scare away locally owned business who employ people from the community? I’m not sure you remember a word of what you wrote when Med Mix was opening, but hopefully you remember that the last two business owners were shot and killed in and around their restaurant, so maybe you think it would have been better to leave the dilapidated empty building rather than opening a delicious restaurant that employees locals.

  5. SMDH at the above readers’ comments. LOVE Sarah’s column in Seattle Times, but fear that it’s sending too many of their commenters to SG. Such vitriol and myopia…

    • The Globalist is part of the Seattle Times’ News Partner Network, so sometimes stories (like this one) are linked from the ST homepage.

      I agree that it does shift the overall tone of the comments in a noticeable way. But a big part of our mission is to reach new audiences with these stories and engage new people, so ultimately I think it’s a good thing.

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