Hanging in the Balance
City Boots Fremont Street Artist; Some Neighbors Say Good Riddance
On the other hand, maybe not all publicity is good publicity.
Fawzi Benhariz, also known as Benny, also known as "the rock balancer," has been building intricately balanced rock sculptures in Fremont for more than two years. The City of Seattle has shut down his sidewalk sculptures in part, Benny thinks, because of a profile of him in the April issue of Seattle Metropolitan magazine. Some locals, who describe Benny as a great artist and neighborhood icon, are pissed; others, who say he's a moody public nuisance, are relieved.
Roughly two weeks after the profile was published, and two years after Benny began regularly building his rock sculptures, the city's Department of Transportation said he had to have a Street Use Permit and insurance to build his work in the public right-of-way. Benny, who is homeless, can't afford the permits. When a DOT official showed up, Benny tried to explain that he was "a real artist."
"I'm not just some street tramp," he insisted. "I showed them the article in Seattle Metropolitan magazine. They said, 'Yes, we've seen that, we're aware of you.'" The city Street Use folks weren't capable of commenting for this story—there were the I-don't-know answers and the it-depends answers and the inevitable supervisor to talk to who was, inevitably, out of the office. Nobody I spoke to knew if the DOT's newfound interest had anything to do with the article that praised the sculptor with lines like, "Since his arrival two years ago, the fruits of Benny's devotion have been one of the highlights of Fremont culture."
The rock balancer's work typically stretched down a strip of North 36th Street, across the street from Caffe Ladro and the Ballroom, just down the road from Rudy's Barbershop, Fremont Coffee, and a boutique pet store called Bailey's Leash and Treat. The sculptures are heir to Stonehenge and Machu Picchu—monuments of carefully balanced stone without mortar. "This is my love, my salvation," Benny said, fingering his beard with thick, calloused fingers. He wears a beret and speaks with a light Libyan accent. His hands are rough and strong from hauling around enormous rocks. "In the entire world, there are maybe 10 of us world-class, but everybody does this. Everybody plays with rocks on the beach. It's an ancient human art—Stonehenge was a way of solidarity, before we had community halls and concert halls. It was a way to say we're human, we're here, we want to remain."
Some of his sculptures are intricate piles of small stones, forming undulating walls and fences reminiscent of Catalan architect Antonio Gaudí. Others are simpler and more striking—one large rock balanced, on a point smaller than a thumbnail, on top of another. They look improbable and surreal, like a magician's trick or a dreamy stack of rocks from a Kay Sage painting. Their seeming precariousness is why the city asked that Benny get insurance. "Thirty months I had my rocks up," he said, "and zero accidents. Not a car got scratched, not a puppy, not a child." People donate rocks to his stockpile, down the street and around the corner from Caffe Ladro.
Passersby stop to admire his painstaking creations and post photos on the internet. "Yes, people like it," said Anil Shrestha, a manager at Qazis Indian Curry House on North 36th Street. "It's art. It's a nice skill, no?" To many, Benny is an icon of free-spirited Fremont, home of the Solstice Parade and a sense of carefully crafted, self-conscious whimsy. As one local gushed, "Benny is just one of the many amazing people that make Fremont the most wonderful place I have ever lived." In light of Benny's exile from North 36th Street, Jon Hegeman, cofounder and manager of the Fremont Sunday Market, has given Benny a weekly booth space in which to build his sculptures. He also found Benny some piecework with a local artist and mason named Nigel O. "He's kind of a community project," Hegeman said.
Other residents aren't so fond of Benny, saying his admirers miss a critical distinction between the (talented) artist and the (difficult) man. One local business owner, who wanted to speak off the record, said Benny has frightening violent streaks. "Honestly, I like it better when his rocks are gone," he said. "Then we see less of him. This is Fremont—we're open-minded people. But when it's a public-safety issue, it becomes a different story." Another business owner said he wanted to speak off the record because of Benny's fans who patronize his business. "My shop totally supports the arts and I'm tolerant of different people and things—but the garbage he leaves, he pees nearby and it smells, his yelling... I can't be tolerant about that." (A check with King County courts showed a long rap sheet with charges ranging from alcohol violations to assault to stalking.) Benny and his sculptures cut across Fremont's dueling self-images as a countercultural epicenter where the eccentric roam freely and a booming neighborhood of rising property values—which is why business owners freely bitch about his "rants," his "mess," and "the smell" around his sculptures in private but are afraid to talk honestly on the record. "I just don't think it would be good for my business," said one. "I don't know if I want my name involved in any controversy," said another. "Actually, I'm kind of afraid of Benny," said a third.
Others aren't so reluctant to say what they think: "I'm tired of puff pieces on Benny like that thing in Seattle Met," said Kevin Kogin, a barista at Caffe Ladro, "He drinks, rants, gets aggressive; I've had to call the cops on him myself. I don't have any personal beef with Benny, but it bugs me that people who don't know him come in and say, 'Look at the charming savage.' That's wrong—and it's actually kind of insulting to Benny." If Benny and his detractors agree on one thing, it's that he deserves more than casual condescension.
Benny was born in Benghazi, Libya and started "playing with rocks" when he was 6 years old. Now he sleeps on the street in Fremont, in his U.S. Army sleeping bag. "I pay a high price," he said. "I've been thrown in jail, beaten up. When I was a boy and got beat up, I played with rocks and felt better. Now I get beaten up because I play with rocks." He started to tear up. "And I go and play with rocks again." He said he has lived in Seattle for 16 years, earned a philosophy degree from Loyola University in New Orleans, lived in Alaska.
He deflected further personal questions: How long has he been homeless? "You're not making that the issue, are you?" (Later he said he's been homeless for three years.) How old was he when he came to the United States? "Just say I lived in the United States for 22 years, in Seattle 16 years." What jobs did he have before becoming homeless? "This article, it's going to be about my art, right? It's not going to be all about some homeless guy who's having these problems. I don't want that." He asked if anyone's name besides his would appear in the article. He seemed put off when I said yes. He wanted to know whom I talked to, what they said, how big the article would be, how many pictures. Then he asked, "This article—will it be good for me or bad for me?"