George Horatio Smith, a D.C. vendor extraordinaire who turned a Northeast street corner into a commercial landmark called "Cowboy's Place," was evicted yesterday.
Smith's open-air establishment, a familiar sight at the corner of North Capitol Street and Riggs Road NE, was quickly dismantled yesterday morning by police from the city's vending enforcement squad who backed a truck up to the lot and carted off his hand-lettered "Cowboy's Place" sign, along with his displays of tropical plants, wicker furniture, roach spray and firewood.
The eviction climaxed a year-long dispute between the city and Smith, 33, who came to Washington after being laid off at a Cleveland auto assembly plant six years ago.
The difficulty apparently was over the lot, owned by the city, and who has the right to use it.
An adjacent Cajun King carryout, formerly a Holly Farms fried chicken outlet, has applied for a permit to landscape the property. Smith said his business licenses gave him the right to operate on the corner.
"I've been here almost six years," said Smith. "If I didn't have the right to be here, why did the city issue me all of these business licenses?"
"He has several vending violations against him and we've gotten complaints," police Sgt. Jose Acosta explained. "He was in violation of the public space law. He thought that license entitled him to do anything."
"He plugged into our utilities, electricity and water," said William Taylor, executive vice president of Holly Enterprises, Inc., which owns Cajun King. "He used our trash dumpster and left trash on our property. We did register a number of complaints."
"Not true," Smith retorted. "I used the utilities when I was paying Holly Farms rent. When I found out the city owned the property, I stopped paying rent."
Taylor said he knows of no arrangement under which Smith had rented space from the company.
Smith manned his corner wearing a cowboy hat and boots, waving and calling to passersby on the busy commuter arteries. Some people arrived on buses to shop at his corner, while others drove in from the suburbs for his low prices.
Smith said that he has tried to comply with city regulations, but that the rules kept changing.
"Last May, the D.C. vending license squad came and said the license I had was no good for the space and that I needed a vending license," he said. "I ad applied for a vendor's license, but that was denied since I operated 24 hours . . . . Then I was instructed to get a business license for food and nonedibles."
Smith said he spent a night in jail, paid $300 for a vendor's license, had his goods impounded, paid several hundred dollars in fines, and has had his tent taken.
Acosta said the police department took what was determined to be property of any value and called trash collectors to take away the rest, but only trash.
Yesterday customers, surprised to see the site vacant, stopped to find out what had happened. From passing cars came an occasional shout: "What's going on, Cowboy?"
Smith is to appear in court Tuesday to answer some of the charges. Yesterday's events seemed paradoxical for the intrepid capitalist who once told a reporter he had taken his business to the street because "if I had to worry about complying with a whole lot of regulations, I couldn't make it."