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After the Arson

After a devastating arson, four neighboring businesses in Greenwood look to recover
By Steven Byeon

On the morning of Oct. 23, 2009, the Eleanor Roosevelt Building on 85th Street in Greenwood burned down. The brick building, which stood in Greenwood for more than 90 years, was next to the Taproot Theatre and housed Pho Tic Tac and three other businesses.

Loan Nguyen, owner of Pho Tic Tac, woke up to a phone call from her landlord. She couldn’t believe her business was in flames. She turned on the television news.

“I watched it hopelessly because we couldn’t do anything else. I just wished I was dreaming,” Nguyen said. “I pinched myself to see if I was dreaming.” That same morning, Randy Rowland, CEO of the Green Bean Coffeehouse – another business in the Eleanor Roosevelt Building – received a call from the café’s manager, Summer Mohrlang, with news of the arson. He immediately left his home in Ballard.

“I was probably there before six o’clock and watching it pretty helplessly,” Rowland said. “Just after I got there all the firemen were called out and the roof caved in.”

Video: Greenwood Community

Video by Christina Babcock

After the fire was extinguished all that remained were four destroyed businesses – one café and three restaurants – and a theater severely damaged by smoke and water. The blaze to the Eleanor Roosevelt Building was one of several arsons in the Greenwood area in the fall of 2009.

When the arson destroyed Phung Hoang’s restaurant, Szechuan Bistro, she felt that she had lost everything. For her it was “starting life all over again.” She felt emptiness after losing her job and her family’s main source of income. The restaurant she opened every morning for more than seven years was now gone. The rented space was uninsured, leaving her with nothing.

Since the arson, Hoang has only visited Greenwood once. She has been unemployed since the disaster and is unsure whether she will open another restaurant. The same reason keeping her from Greenwood also makes her apprehensive about opening another business. The arson is still in her mind and it is a scary thought.

Community support has helped curb the financial burden for Hoang. The Greenwood Fire Relief Fund was created after the arson to manage and distribute donations from the community. The board raised more than $19,000 through individual donations, community fundraisers, and donations from businesses.

The businesses in the Eleanor Roosevelt Building each received three $1,000 disbursements. The fund was closed in February after the final disbursement was given. Seven other businesses and two individuals affected by the fires also received assistance from the fund.

Loan Nguyen’s Vietnamese noodle soup restaurant had been in Greenwood since 2002. In 2008, Nguyen was informed that her lease would not be renewed. She began to look for a new location for her Pho restaurant. She found a location off of Aurora Avenue and 145th Street in Shoreline.

In May 2009, Nguyen opened her second Pho Tic Tac location. On the grand opening day of her new location Nguyen received a call from her Greenwood landlord offering her a lease through Summer 2011. Nguyen was overwhelmed with excitement at being able to keep both restaurants.

“That was the happiest day of my life,” Nguyen said.

Five months after opening a new location, the original Pho Tic Tac was destroyed by fire.

“I think we’re the luckiest one among the restaurant owners because we had the new restaurant five months before the fire happened,” Nguyen said. “So that makes me think the new restaurant happened for some reason.”

Video: The Mural

Video by Sofie Dalgaard-Jorgensen

The Sanctuary Church in Greenwood meets every Sunday in the Taproot Theatre. Without a traditional church building The Sanctuary opened the Green Bean Café as a place for members and the community to meet.

“We have always wanted to be a community center for Greenwood,” Mohrlang, the café’s manager, said. “We serve coffee as an excuse to get to know the neighborhood.”

On the day of the arson many customers came for their morning coffee only to find the Green Bean was destroyed. Mohrlang sensed a feeling of sadness and hope. Although the building burned down, the community was still strong.

After hearing about the destruction to the Green Bean, Diana Naramore and her husband Stephen, owners of a local café and shipping center called the Sip and Ship, felt a need to reach out and help. “Within a couple of hours we fashioned an e-mail and sent it to the people we knew and said that we would be happy to allow them to run the coffee so they would not displace their crew members,” Naramore said.

“I think there were about 10 or 12 of us in the room and everybody started crying,” Rowland said. “They were really placing others ahead of themselves to offer this space.”

Less than a month after being destroyed, the Green Bean reopened a few blocks away inside the Sip and Ship.

“It’s hard to put into words why we did what we did, it just felt right,” Naramore said. “It was the right thing to do.”

The fourth business destroyed by the arson was CC Teriyaki. The restaurant had changed ownership less than two months prior to the arson. None of the other business owners have spoken to owner Jin Ok Kim since the arson.

On Nov. 13, 2009, Kevin Swalwell, 46, was arrested blocks away from a three-alarm fire in Shoreline. Swalwell was charged with 11 counts of arson, including the fire at the Eleanor Roosevelt Building.

Nguyen recognized him immediately after his picture was released. She said she and other business owners had often fed Swalwell, a homeless man. They also allowed him to sleep on the back porch of their businesses. Mohrlang remembers seeing Swalwell the day before the arson inside the Green Bean.
“When I saw his pictures I couldn’t believe my eyes. I said, ‘Oh my goodness. This is the guy we used to feed. How could he do that to us?'” Nguyen sai.

According to charging documents, on the night of the arson Swalwell broke into the office of the Green Bean and stole the safe. Then he ignited cardboard and paper to start the fire. Swalwell initially pled not guilty to the charges, but changed his plea to guilty last week.

Customers who used to walk to Nguyen’s restaurant in Greenwood now ride the bus to Pho Tic Tac in Shoreline. She appreciates the support from Greenwood customers at her new restaurant and hopes to open a new location in the area again.

“Since it happened I just learned that we’ve been loved a lot from the Greenwood community, which, we didn’t realize at first when we were there,” Nguyen said. “That’s how I learned that we’ve been surrounded by a very strong community over there. That makes me really want to come back when I have a chance.”

Read previous stories from the Student Projects:
The Homeless Neighbor
The Missing Link
Lights Out, Computer On

Learn more about the nonprofit Common Language Project