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News / Life / Clark County Life

Dangerous junk or weird art? Mannequins and mess on Rose Village property frustrates neighbors

Steve Slocum's rural property was set ablaze in 2021 and a total loss; his suburban Vancouver neighbors don't like the displays he calls art

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian staff writer
Published: March 16, 2024, 6:13am
3 Photos
Steve Slocum stands before his very stuffed yard in Vancouver. His neighbors complain that the place is a fire hazard and a magnet for rodents. The city is trying to &ldquo;nudge&rdquo; Slocum toward code compliance. Slocum says he intends to keep pushing back.
Steve Slocum stands before his very stuffed yard in Vancouver. His neighbors complain that the place is a fire hazard and a magnet for rodents. The city is trying to “nudge” Slocum toward code compliance. Slocum says he intends to keep pushing back. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

The owner of a spectacularly strange and overstuffed rural property near Battle Ground, which was destroyed in July 2021 by an intentionally sparked fire, has brought what he calls his weird sense of humor to Vancouver. His neighbors are not amused.

The Battle Ground property had been a surreal scene. Hundreds of posed mannequins hung out in the yard amidst a vast, oddball collection of antiques, furniture, art objects, musical instruments, photography equipment and all sorts of other miscellaneous stuff.

Steve Slocum cherished all of it, he said.

“I bought this great big church and I wanted to fill it with antiques I’ve been collecting all my life,” said Slocum, who worked as a news photographer for the Associated Press and as a gutter-installation contractor, before retiring to rural Battle Ground in 2014. “It was like my big studio out there, where I could express myself.”

Now, Slocum has re-created that chaotic outdoor scenario all over again since moving to Vancouver’s Rose Village neighborhood in 2022 — but on a much tighter urban parcel, with neighbors just feet away.

Slocum’s small fenced yard on P Street is filled to the brim with random acquisitions. Naked mannequins are stationed around the property. Some are dismembered or headless, and some of the heads are affixed to fence posts. There’s a mannequin baby confined to a cage. There’s at least one taxidermied animal.

Parked in front of all that — and in front of a “Welcome to our s—show” banner across the front gate — are two vehicles, a pickup and a minivan, both packed tight. The minivan is topped by a casket.

“It’s weird. It’s fun,” Slocum said. “Driving around with a casket on top of your car — it’s a great prop. I like to see people’s reactions.”

Slocum’s neighbors sure have reacted. They consider Slocum’s property a fire hazard, a magnet for rodents and just plain offensive. Several have reached out to Vancouver’s code compliance department numerous times since last summer.

“It’s pretty hard to creep me out,” said neighbor Keelie Price. “My grandfather was a mortician. But if I was some kind of assault survivor, I’d be triggered.”

Price is a licensed veterinary technician who operates her own home dog-fostering business. But Slocum’s mess has put that at risk, she said. She alleges rats that originate with Slocum have been digging under their shared fence and into her basement.

“I have rat feces and rat urine in my yard,” she said. “My yard is not safe for dogs or people.”

Slocum didn’t deny leaving food outside to rot once or twice, but he realized that was a problem and corrected it, he said.

“There are no more attractants,” he said. “I’ve eliminated them.”

Neighbors don’t buy it. Pauline Davis and Steve Ambeuhl, who live two doors away, said they’ve found dead rats on the sidewalk. That’s a first after 20 years on P Street, they said. One door farther away, neighbor Anna Griggel complained by email to the city code compliance department earlier this week about rats nesting in and damaging her car.

“I’ve lived in the neighborhood for over seven years. I’d never seen any rats until Steve Slocum moved in,” she wrote.

Slow process

Vancouver development review manager Jason Nortz, who oversees the city’s code compliance officers, said he sympathizes with neighbors. Neighborhood nuisance problems can be frustratingly slow and incremental to resolve, he said.

“This was first brought to our attention in June 2023, and we opened a case,” he said. “From (Price’s) standpoint I can see it feels like it’s not moving along. These things take time.”

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There are procedural and legal reasons why the city can’t just force resolution, he said. For one thing, city officials cannot step onto private property without permission. Code compliance officers have been visiting Slocum periodically since last summer, he said, but they’ve never been allowed inside Slocum’s fence. Therefore, they’ve never been able to examine the situation thoroughly.

While there have been many complaints and some evidence of rats outside of Slocum’s property, officers have not been able to tie it directly to Slocum, he said.

“To date no rats, rat droppings or holes have been directly observed on Mr. Slocum’s property,” according to recent notes in the city’s file.

Price calls that logic ridiculous. The rats are a real and pressing problem, whether or not the city is empowered to trace it to its source, she said. While city officials work during the daytime, she added, rats are active at night.

“I’m not discounting that,” Nortz said. “We’ve talked about that. But we need permission to be able to go behind Mr. Slocum’s fence.”

Nudging along

While the city hasn’t tied the rats to Slocum, Nortz said it’s easy to determine — even from outside the fence — that Slocum’s extremely cluttered parcel is a neighborhood nuisance and potential fire hazard.

Nortz said Slocum is “clearly in violation” of the city prohibition on what’s called “open storage” of trash and other miscellaneous stuff that doesn’t belong outdoors.

“If there was a fire, all the debris in Mr. Slocum’s yard would exacerbate it,” he said.

The city’s case file shows a pattern of Slocum making meager progress toward cleaning up, then backsliding. Food has continued to be stored off and on outside as recently as earlier this year, according to code compliance officers’ notes.

“Owner is a severe hoarder and does not believe he is in violation,” one officer wrote after a site visit. “Property continues to be in violation.”

Code compliance officers tried contacting Slocum several times in summer 2023, Nortz said, and got no response. In September, it informed him he was in violation. In October, it added the threat of a fine.

There have now been several citations and appeals. According to the record, Slocum owes the city $500 so far.

“That’s where we’re at now, trying to nudge him along,” Nortz said. “We want to see how we can help him.”

The city is never eager to play hardball with private property owners, Nortz said. It always seeks cooperation and compliance before issuing fines, which can stack up fast and lead to ugly outcomes that nobody wants, like criminal charges.

“In any code case, we always err on the side of taking more time to get the owner to come into compliance,” he said. “We want to avoid that at all costs. We don’t want to get heavy-handed.”

Back in Battle Ground

Clark County has also tangled with Slocum. According to county records, Slocum is on the hook for $90,000 in accrued penalties for not cleaning up the Battle Ground church property, which he still owns, after the fire. The county now has a lien on the place.

At the time of the fire, surveillance video caught a carful of teens stopping near the rural site. One threw an incendiary device. At the time, Slocum and his nephew were relaxing on the back porch. They heard a bang and Slocum fought the fire with a fire extinguisher, but the property was a total loss.

Two youths — the driver of the car and the one who threw the incendiary device — eventually accepted plea deals that bumped their charges down from arson to reckless burning. They pleaded guilty to that charge in juvenile court and were sentenced to community service and to paying restitution for anything not covered by Slocum’s insurance.

Slocum said he’s received $250 of the $480,000 in restitution he’s due.

“I’m waiting and waiting,” said Slocum, whose total property loss has been estimated at $1 million.

He said establishing the value of his losses in contentious restitution hearings and with insurance companies has been deeply demoralizing and slowed him way down.

“I have health issues and some mental things,” he said. “It’s from the stress of that (Battle Ground) situation. It’s a major challenge for me.

“I do understand,” he said of his neighbors’ frustration. “Motivation is an issue for me. My whole living situation sucks. It’s a nightmare. I wouldn’t even be here on P Street if those (kids) hadn’t burned me out.”

Art and life

Abating the open-storage nuisance and fire hazard on P Street is one thing. But what about the naked, dismembered mannequins? Some neighbors find the scene offensive, but does it constitute some kind of code violation?

Aesthetic judgment about mannequin art is not a matter for Vancouver’s code compliance department, Nortz said.

“I can’t speak to that,” he said. “What many of us might consider offensive, Mr. Slocum sees as creative art. It’s a fine line. It’s subjective.”

City code only restricts “immoral or obscene” displays in terms of outdoor commercial advertising, city spokeswoman Laura Shepard said.

In conversation with The Columbian, Slocum seemed to acknowledge his neighbors’ complaints. But he also argued that they are overblown. He intends to keep pushing back, he said.

“I’ve always been a little weird,” he said. “When I get interested in something, I dive into it. It’s how I relieve my stress. With my weird sense of humor, I like to display mannequins in weird ways.”

Maybe, Slocum suggested, if he’d simply explained his art to his new neighbors before setting it up, they wouldn’t be offended by it now.

“Their position is, it’s junk. My position is, it’s art,” he said. “It’s my escape from reality. Because my reality is, everything I had was lost. When I say everything, I mean everything.”