The start of this new year marked the end of an era in Honolulu.
By the time you read this the International Market Place, the last truly open green space for commerce in the heart of Waikiki, will be closed for good.
It will be replaced by a three-story Saks Fifth Avenue, which will be next door to Macy’s and attached to a planned shopping mall.
Yes, another shopping mall.
Is this what we need in Waikiki — another large department store that locals won’t visit and another mall that looks like some vacuous commercial corner of LA.
Let me put this another way: the International Market Place is closed, and I’m not happy about it.
I want to make something clear. I’ve done a lot of objective journalistic work in my life. That’s not what you are getting here. This is personal.
As a kid growing up in Waikiki, the Market Place was a tropical and mystical land of music and food. It was about people-watching and, for a teenage boy like me, girls.
Every Friday and Saturday night I would put on my best Hang-Ten t-shirt, Navy-style hip-hugging bell-bottoms and sandals with tire rubber sandals. Then I’d venture to that magical location with $5 burning a hole in my pocket. I was so cool.
As a photojournalist I usually make images coldly, without emotion. This project about the end of the Market Place actually pained me to shoot. I was documenting the elimination of the playground of my own adolescence; recording it like a photojournalist does, but without the time to process it and deal with how I feel. Editing these photographs was harder still. The images are there for eternity for you to study and mull over, but when the buildings are gone, there won’t be a physical place that I can anchor my memories to anymore.
I imagine it is the same for vendors, business owners and musicians who got their start in a market place that opened in 1957. I feel bad for all the locals and visitors who had their own memories of that place, one of the few soulful spots that was, until now, left in Waikiki. I feel sorrier for the visitors who will never know it.
Some influential people are convinced that tourists want another Saks Fifth Avenue connected to another mall. In truth our visitors loved the International Market Place as much as we locals did. It was “real.” It was Waikiki in a way that the same chain shops that you can find in cosmopolitan cities around the world aren’t. It was a little funky and a little dirty, but it has — had — character.
Character doesn’t do so well in Honolulu these days. The city has become somewhere else: Los Angeles for traffic; Hong Kong for building towers; New York City for urban grime. What remains, other than the nature that surrounds the city, that is just Honolulu?
The plans that developers have put forward say they will keep the famous banyan tree and the International Market Place sign. I’m glad their saving the tree, but I’m sorry, that sign will mean nothing. You can call it whatever you want and it’ll still be just another modern mall. The sign should be changed to read: This Mall Was the Former Home of the Last Green Space in Waikiki, the International Market Place.
Look, I want to be clear about something. The Queen Emma Land Company has made the right financial decision about the International Market Place. The funds from the redevelopment will go toward The Queens Medical Center on West Oahu, which is a good thing. On a secondary level, the Saks will likely benefit the employees who keep the new store functioning.
But is it the right decision for the people of Waikiki or our visitors?
I’ve seen a good number of big chain stores come and go here. (Remember NikeTown?) If Saks decides to pull out in the next tourism slump or the one after that, what will become of that space? Will anyone care — after all, it will be just another soulless spot for outside commerce that we have no intimate connection to. It all leads to some greater questions: At what point will Oahu become unattractive as a tourist destination. When will we cross the line? Or maybe we just did.
Taking pictures of my youthful stomping grounds was a strange way to spend the last day of 2013. The
security personnel who accompanied me on this project were very welcoming. They — especially the older ones — were saying goodbye to their own more special memories.
Those guards have their professional habits, whether personal or trained into them by their job, but some of their gestures came across as a little surreal given the context. As (former) business owners carried their last belongings out of their shops as they departed for good, the guards wished them an upbeat “Happy New Year!”
My conflicting emotions about how commercialism and development seem to swallow up what made my hometown feel homey for me got me thinking about a song that was popular when I was, well, a lot younger.
They took all the trees
Put ’em in a tree museum
And they charged the people
A dollar and a half just to see ’em
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
— Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi, 1970
For those of you who didn’t get to say your goodbyes to the International Market Place, you can still visit a small portion of it until the end of January when the area in front of the banyan tree, up to Kalakaua Avenue, will be shuttered. Then the demolition begins.
Aloha ‘oe Market Place. Mahalo for the memories.