May, 2007 Vol. 32 No. 2
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Waikīkī Beach Walk

Downwind Productions

Published May 2007

Room for a View

Projects influence how we see Waikīkī

by Jeela Ongley
Eric Masutomi at Outrigger Beach Walk on Lewers Street

Eric Masutomi at Outrigger Beach Walk on Lewers Street


rice paddies in Waikiki

Rice field laborers, 1919-20, by Winter Egeker, from the Hawaiʻi State Archives

"Waikīkī is a great, seemingly natural place that is entirely unnatural and constructed largely for human economic use," says longtime Waikīkī resident Jim Dator. "But I love it." As a prominent University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa future studies professor, Dator is both a realist and a dreamer and part of his job is to navigate between ideas that might polarize others.

Two recent ventures involving UH scholars and alumni exemplify the widely divergent points of view people have on Waikīkī. The first is the proudly business motivated improvement of Lewers Street vis-à-vis Outrigger’s Waikīkī Beach Walk; the other is a contentious book called Waikīkī: A History of Forgetting & Remembering. The former, guided in part by architecture alumnus Eric Masutomi (BFA ’74 Mānoa), is for the purpose of economic rejuvenation and growth. The latter, by art professors Gaye Chan (BFA ’79 Mānoa) and Andrea Feeser, aims to raise awareness of the people and resources affected by development of today"s Waikīkī.

Dator’s pragmatic outlook neither dismisses nor glorifies either point of view. "Hawaiʻi stopped being self-sufficient long ago," he observes. "If something happens to the inflow of tourists, we suffer a horrible depression until we figure out something else. As long as the global neoliberal capitalist system exists, the Outrigger’s plans are sustainable, and Hawaiʻi will continue to depend on tourism for as long as it can.

"One of the things I have been concerned about is sea-level rise—especially in a part of the island that once was a swamp and yearns to become a swamp again," he adds. Dator refers to the fact that the spouting waters that give Waikīkī its name (and once supported an extensive aquaculture system) still gurgle not-too-deep underneath the concrete surface. Evidence lies in the basement parking lot of the Outrigger Reef Hotel, where a special drainage and pump system is needed to clear muddy water that collects when it rains. The property is built on top of ʻĀpuakēhau Stream, which ran the crooked length of Kaʻiulani Street, before there was such a street, before the Ala Wai Canal was built, before the fresh water from the mountains was diverted from feeding the once rich wetlands of Waikīkī.

The story of the "ghost stream" is included in Waikīkī: A History of Forgetting & Remembering as well as on the website for Downwind Productions, the name of the collective producing the project called Historic Waikīkī, of which the book is a part.

A good look for the future

"Lewers is a uniquely dingy street in Waikīkī that is often called Sewers," former Mānoa English Professor Juliana Spahr wrote in a 2003 contribution to the Downwind Productions website. That is no longer true. The largest locally owned hotel-operating company in the state, Outrigger Enterprises Group recently completed a $535 million renovation of the area. Gone are the aging properties built for budget-minded clientele in the ’60s and ’70s. In their place: Waikīkī Beach Walk, a large-scale redevelopment that has transformed the face of Lewers Street.

The centerpiece of Waikīkī Beach Walk is a clean-scrubbed shopping and dining area that can accommodate a roadside stage for music and cultural performances. Most evenings, Hawaiian music performers and hula dancers entertain a small crowd—sun-burnt tourists on their way back from the beach; curious locals waiting for tables at one of the new restaurants; fresh-faced food-service workers just starting their evening shift.

"At the time the Waikīkī Beach Walk project was initiated, Waikīkī was in the throes of economic stagnation," explains Masutomi, Outrigger’s vice president of planning. "Waikīkī was tired and aging and rapidly losing ground to an increasingly growing and competitive tourism marketplace." Masutomi spent 10 years on the project, which formally opened in December 2006. Plans for the site were done and re-done, but key objectives remained constant: transform Lewers Street into an iconic, "must see" destination along the lines of Bourbon Street in New Orleans, 42nd Street in New York City or Pike Place Market in Seattle; redistribute building density to create greater amounts of usable open space; and ensure that everything in the area—to see, touch, hear, taste, smell—tells you that you are in Hawaiʻi.

"The goal," he says, "is to create a new gathering place in Waikīkī for residents and visitors alike that would serve as a catalyst for renewal of the entire district."

Like many of his generation, Masutomi fondly recalls the Waikīkī of his youth. "It was a favorite place for family outings—picnicking at Kapiʻolani Park, swimming at the Natatorium and learning to surf. Later as a young adult, Waikīkī was the place to 'hang' and take in the nightlife."

The growth of the visitor industry brought with it the inevitable overcrowding of the beach and transformation of the area from "kamaʻāina hip" to "concrete jungle and tourist Mecca," he observes. "Waikīkī did lose its appeal as a destination of choice for locals. But my attitude at the time was one of benign acceptance, recognizing the changes as a necessary cost of sustained prosperity."

Armed with the skills and professional connections he acquired at the then-fledgling School of Architecture in the ’70s, Masutomi helped create the parkland in Kakaʻako, ensuring that the very limited publicly-owned oceanfront lands between downtown Honolulu and Waikīkī remain open for the use and enjoyment of generations to come. "In a similar fashion, in Waikīkī, Outrigger has taken a very significant step in re-polishing the gem and restoring the old lady to her former glory. As an urban planner and keiki o ka ʻāina, what could be greater than that?"

Alternate views of the past

"Hotels will never go far enough to create real change," says visual artist and instructor Gaye Chan. "They can’t because hotels are a part of the capitalist system, which will always be about consumption. Our project is trying to imagine ways of life outside of consumption."

Chan and her collaborators at Downwind Productions produce ""agit-prop interventions," politically charged artwork including cement-rubble "souvenirs" of historic Waikīkī, a website that debunks some of the popular myths while offering alternative views and, most recently, their critical, activist book project. According to Chan, the effort seeks to "create a dialog about how memory and histories are made," but in an engaging and artistic way.

The project name reveals some of the intent of its collaborators, who are numerous. Downwind is an unfortunate place to be if someone or something stinks, but an advantageous position for hunters who stealthily advance on their prey. Downwind Productions was instigated by newcomer and art historian Andrea Feeser in 1996 when she came to Mānoa to teach and wanted to educate herself about Hawai’i. Feeser has since relocated to South Carolina, but the complementary nature of her and Chan’s thinking remains evident.

"Andrea asked about Waikīkī as soon as she arrived," says Chan, who realized that she too had little substantive knowledge about the place she'd known since she immigrated to Hawaiʻi when she was 12 years old. "Gaye and I were overwhelmed by how over-developed Waikīkī is and how much that reality contrasts with the fantasies of natural splendor that appear in a lot of tourist literature," says Feeser. "The question was not so much what we should know about Waikīkī," explains Chan, "but the more interesting question is WHY we don’t know."

Waikīkī: A History of Forgetting & Remembering, written by Feeser with art and design by Chan, isn’t meant to be easily digested, even though it masquerades as a coffee-table book. Chan credits the contemporary art savvy of UH Press Acquisitions Editor Masako Ikeda for signing such an unusual project. Producing a genre-bending book required compromises on both sides. "In order to successfully impersonate a coffee table book, we really needed their expertise," says Chan.

The book traces stories of Waikīkī’s past by breathing life into the various districts of Waikīkī once fed by streams that today, through the machinations of man, mostly skirt Waikīkī as they drain into the Ala Wai Canal.

Inviting text and images challenge the reader to ask questions. For example, in a deliberate twist on conventional style, images appear without captions; what is known of each image—which may not be much at all—is listed at the end. "The reader has to ask what is this photograph showing? Who made it? What for?," Chan says. "We hope to inspire people to find pleasure in being active readers, and also to turn that critical eye on everything they see, especially media and advertising."

New meanings unfold under close consideration of the words and pictures. "Gaye’s images do not illustrate the book’s text; they communicate on their own and in tandem with the chapters I wrote," explains Feeser. "Each image is a work of art that engages viewers in a powerful exchange, and they 'talk' back to my writing in ways that continue to amaze me."

Unlike some activists, Chan and Feeser aren’t trying to tell people not to come to Hawaiʻi, but rather to think about the place when they get here as more than the escape destination presented in tourist brochures. "I hope that the book encourages readers/viewers to rethink their relationships to vacation destinations, especially Waikīkī, and all matter of things that we consume in society today," Feeser says. "We don’t know, or we forget, that the things we buy often come at a much larger price than that which we see on our receipts."

A new vision for industry

The question of what is truly sustainable for Waikīkī concerns everyone from business interests to environmentalists. As a Native Hawaiian lecturer in Mānoa’s School of Travel Industry Management, Ramsay Taum understands both industry and activist viewpoints. He is helping recalibrate expectations by weighting the viewpoints of Native Hawaiians more heavily.

"The Waikīkī of the future may not be anything that the contemporary mind wants it to look like," he observes, considering the possibilities if Hawaiian perspectives predominate. The trade-off between congestion and sprawl, for example, might suggest that a densely-packed Waikīkī is actually more desirable for both the industry and the land. In his view, "a sustainable Hawaiʻi will be one that gives back more than it receives."

Ultimately, a middle path, informed by the past and shaped by the realities of the present, may be the best bet for the future of Hawaiʻi’s most famous beachfront.

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