Honolulu Creators

Why you should keep your broke, art-making ass in Chinatown

Text by Sonny Ganaden  ||  Images by Max Smith

These are the rent-raising, soul-crushing years. Though numerous local artists have had his or her work shown prior to Honolulu’s nascent housing boom, there have been few artistic discussions of the economic inequality inherent in the building. The blasé attitude the arts community has given these new developments belie an obvious prescience: that these buildings are not for us. 

For Honolulu citizens who were born after the 1980s, now comes the second major housing boom of their lifetimes. The Japanese building bubble that created bedroom communities throughout the interior of O‘ahu two decades ago now occupies most of what can be turned into neighborhoods on O‘ahu. But unlike that spree, which metastasized through the former sugar fields and sugar economy that defined Hawai‘i life for nearly 150 years and created housing that was both sprawling and (sort of) affordable, the new boom is centered in Honolulu’s urban core. In Kaka‘ako, between downtown and the economic engine of Waikiki, up to 30 new buildings are lined up to be built, with as many as 15,000 new residents slated to move in, according to the respective master plans of the two major landowners, the state, and private developers.

Unlike in previous eras, developers have been quick on the uptake with the arts scene. As a ready-made formula to re-characterize the jank-ness in non-affluent neighborhoods (i.e. homelessness, poverty, lack of open space, failure of governmental programming), art on walls, art in galleries, and events for film, discussion, and holidays can convene the masses. They build community. They also raise property values. For artists, the problem comes when the builders say the party’s over. Deciding which tenant goes or stays has far more to do with the alignment of investment readiness, contractors, and the governmental ramming-through of a rail system than with how mind-blowing the art was. 

Forbes Magazine recently named Hawai‘i the toughest state to make a living in. And no wonder: A report from University of Hawai’i’s UHERO states, “At current interest rates, if your dream is a single family home, you will need $126k to put down initially and an income of right over $96k. Your monthly payment would be in the neighborhood of $2,400. If condos are more your style, your down payment would be in the $63k range, and you’d need an income around $48k. This leaves you with a monthly mortgage of $1,200.” Ugh, math. Doesn’t look great for the kids either. Generational economic mobility is as terrible here as it is nationwide. A child raised in Honolulu whose family’s income was in the bottom 20 percent has a 10.1 percent chance of reaching the top 20 percent of family income in adulthood.

Part of the reasoning behind all this development is a foreseen increase in population. Unfortunately, the planned developments in Honolulu’s urban core are nowhere near the low-end of UHERO’s number. Though there is some compliance with a mandate for affordable housing, the majority of units opening in the planned 30 buildings start at $1 million.

In Chinatown, “gentrification” was the inappropriate term applied to the neighborhood a mere half-decade ago, when new bars and restaurants took over seedier versions of older bars and restaurants; the work of dedicated community arts advocates started to pay off; and the neighborhood became synonymous with both small art galleries and monthly street festivals. Collectives popped up. Artists moved in. Through almost nil intervention from the state or county, the houseless population seemed to diminish by degrees. After years of wrangling in city council and liquor commission hearings, an even truce between residents and new business owners emerged: The Chinatown arts scene could stay.

Flash forward to the present, the bars, restaurants, and galleries have held on, but the houseless problem on the streets has returned to the bad-old-days. There is shit everywhere; so many bodies. The bizarreness of the daytime and the crushing defeat of the evenings is all the proof necessary to illustrate where local governmental priorities are. At least the Feds are stepping in. 

Honolulu is part of a campaign known as the 25 Cities Initiative, which was launched to help communities with high concentrations of homeless veterans. The goal is to end veteran homelessness by the end of 2015 and end chronic homelessness by the end of 2016. Good luck with that. Local politicians have been spreading the platitudes of aloha for years, while averting their eyes as their peers smash shopping carts in between sessions.

So, please, if you make art, consider doing it in Chinatown, where in five-years time, the galleries will still be here, there will still be a drink to grab after the show, and the gorgeous red-brick buildings that once acted as ballast for incoming whalers will still hold the heaviest of frames. Hopefully, the bodies will be taken care of by then.