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Contrast Magazine: Growing pains & dreams of outshining the golden child

Kaka'ako vs. DUMBO: Growing pains & dreams of outshining the golden child

Copyright © 2014 by Lindsey Okubo


            DUMBO is a metaphor for what Kaka'ako aspires to be; a hub for entrepreneurs and creative types alike. Cue Lady Liberty and King Kamehameha, their land's palming different horizons only to find some conformity between two small districts lying on their respective coasts: DUMBO, Brooklyn and Kaka'ako on the island of Oahu. Both districts are operated by a major landowner who is thus able to build a community. In DUMBO, real-estate developer Two Trees plays the role of creator divine and in Kaka'ako, it's Kamehameha Schools. Kamehameha Schools owns 52 acres in the vicinity, 29 of which are to be used towards the projected development of "Our Kaka'ako" which is to be a "self-contained community", as marketing ninja, Kirra Downing calls it. This sibling rivalry is about to heat up as baby brother, Kaka'ako is feeling angsty putting the blame on its growing pains-- although we know Hawai'i is no New York.

         As Our Kaka'ako moves to create this community, an urban island culture too must be simultaneously assembled and what it is to be "Hawaiian", redefined. Kaka'ako can look to its older brother DUMBO while it still cuts itself shaving, its voice deepens and starts to tag using spray-paint from City Mill. It's called growing up. Kaka'ako is a rising five-year old but and in the next ten years it hopes to equalize its New York sibling’s success.  

           DUMBO's culture sustains those who live, work and visit its 98 block neighborhood through an identity that is marketable as it is, artlessly Brooklyn. Seeking some insight, "The biggest lesson to take from DUMBO is to build a community with the community in mind,” says Lisa Kim, creative director of Two Trees.  "So you can't just step into a community and say, 'hey I'm gonna give you an opera company, or murals, whatever, and it's going to make everything alright. There has to be a dialogue between the community and the stakeholders and those who are pushing for this change, it's a balancing act. There's a maturity to the level of work and innovation going on here. These are not brand new businesses anymore, people are grown up".

         In the face of a gentrified New York and the presence of Starbucks on every other block, DUMBO provides and fulfills a sustained niche for artists and galleries that have long since taken on the role of the new American nomad as they continue to find themselves searching for affordable rent. This is the defining feature of DUMBO's culture because the community has directly molded it. Kaka'ako's urban-island culture on the other hand is something entirely new and residents have yet to get their hands dirty.

            Rising to shine, it's the third Saturday of the month, which means that baby brother is hosting the Night Market. The streets waft with a pastiche of smells snaking their way skywards from food-carts, some 20,000 residents flock to Honolulu's southern district sporting their bucket-hats and strappy, six-inch heels. "It's a very urban experience, it's right in the heart of the city and you see the desire and the acceptance of something very avant-garde", says Christian O'Connor, Kamehameha School's senior asset manager. The experience is urban but whether or not those attending recognize it to be so is debatable depending on their mentality.

            Those behind Our Kaka'ako know that what is being built is something that Hawaii has never experienced before. Therein lies a great opportunity for Hawaiian culture to take ownership of itself. To take it back from tourism, which is a three-headed monster engendering despair alongside a lack of opportunity and affordability in the non-fictitious story of Hawaiian gentrification. Owner and operator of Fitted Hawai‘i and OHA (Office of Hawaiian Affairs) poster-boy, Ola Rapoza has his office in the neighborhood. "Kaka'ako has a chance but we gotta get out of the gate, we gotta make the right decisions and gotta get the right people down here," says Rapoza who is passionately opposed to urban sprawl and realizes that a metropolitan future is our future.  "The opportunity for affordable space is thee most important here because if we get affordable space here for young people then you're going to need supermarkets, eateries, shopping, then it becomes viable, But when we're starting to build the community without people down here, it's an issue".           

            Beside Rapoza and Fitted, Pow!Wow! Hawaii is one of Kaka'ako's most recognizable facial features. With murals scaling buildings like unwarranted shadows, organizations like Pow!Wow! are hoping to re-vamp the picture that materializes when we hear the word: "urban.” When Pow!Wow! first came to Hawaii, Tiffany Tanaka, educational director and owner of Fresh Café, remembers founder, Jasper Wong's instantaneous love for this place, the aloha spirit and the hunger for change in the new generation. "Art brings people together,” says Tanaka. “We could laugh, cry, scream, whatever you want about it, you don't have to have the same opinion--and I think that's what a community is about. If we can help people go through an experience that will change their mentality, that's when you know you've done something good.” Walking down the streets of Kaka'ako we see the paint on the walls to be art, not graffiti, similarly as we hope to see this place as the future, not an end. Honolulu is a city, we have long since done away with our white picket fences and lo'i's as we no longer thrive there. But we certainly do not thrive in rush hour traffic, neither in our catering to tourists who throw us shakas, nor in having to stay on the mainland after school because on top of student loans, we just can't afford paradise. O'ahu was once known as the gathering place to its people, what is it to us now?

         No one knows what exactly this new culture is going to look like, it will come to define itself as all its facilitators are doing is building a platform for people to grow into. "We want to create this culture and community that roots us here so that we're exporting the ideas of Hawaii anew that are picked up by people around the world who will say 'wow, that's really enlightening' ", says O'Connor.  "It's about allowing a multitude of voices to change and expand our perceptions, to incorporate new ideas and I think that's what a complex urban city is about".

            But you can't tell people what they need and you certainly can't tell the people of Hawaii to leave their Kailua beachfront homes to move into a condo in town. This will not become the hub for a more progressive Hawaii if its people are forever mourning the loss of their view of Manoa Valley as they paddle in from surfing at Bowls. Kaka'ako through art, innovation and its newborn culture must create an experience that residents will come to want, then need. It has to be proven to the people that this is not the gentrification of our home, another development, but its next life. Hawaii has a rich cultural history that need be preserved and progressed as one, a factor that DUMBO did not have to construe. "When David Walentas (founder of Two Trees) first came to the neighborhood in the late 70s, early 80s, he immediately saw the potential for what this neighborhood could be. There was big, cheap, plentiful space, and because Two Trees owns three million square feet of property there was a unique opportunity to invite creative's and businesses to come set up shop here", explained Kim. DUMBO was created to supply a demand, a culture was coined to keep it alive. "It's New York City real estate, development is going to happen". DUMBO never had to introduce "urban" to New Yorkers, New Yorkers minted urban.

            The public has a choice to either shape this experience with its own hands, or to watch as Honolulu becomes a mere memory of aloha. Hula, one of the oldest and most popular art forms in Hawaiian culture has proved that a sincere evolution is possible. While traditional kahiko is still performed it also has made way for the existence of 'auana, or modern hula to exist concurrently. Similarly Kaka'ako must figure out a way to become Honolulu's own offshoot of 'auana hula, shaking hips not heads to the purr of the concrete jungle. 

Written in Summer 2014

Photo by Lindsey Okubo

Original edit before publication.  

For Contrast Magazine. Issue 13.