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Garrett Tam’s family has run a small shoe repair shop in Kaimuki for more than 60 years. Today, even as trendy restaurants have popped up on his block, he said the neighborhood maintains the vintage charm he remembers from his childhood in the 1970s.
Tam’s Shoe Repair on 12th Avenue is a window into the current state of the community that combines a classic Honolulu feel with a fashionable side. It may even be a little bit hipster.
“I want to do some renovations in here, but I want to keep that old-fashioned style,” Tam said on a recent weekday afternoon. “Because if I modernize it a little bit too much, I lose the flavor from what the customers feel.”
In Tam’s shop, a few shelves have been upgraded over the years, but the look remains the same, even down to the paint on the walls.
The storefront displays newspaper clippings, old signs and other relics that speak to the shop’s history. Shelves overflow with suitcases, shoes and other items ready for pickup or waiting for repair. Tam takes his time with each customer, explaining in detail the changes he’ll make, as others line up outside.
Newer stores, like the many yoga studios and coffee shops, bring a younger crowd to Kaimuki. Restaurants of many cultures now dominate the commercial area, Tam said. Younger entrepreneurs have quickened the pace on Waialae Avenue, he said, while longtime business owners try to slow things down.
“When it was time to open a restaurant, I always knew that this was the area I wanted it to be in.” — Ed Kenney, owner of three restaurants in Kaimuki
“I try to remember the face, the name, kind of like my dad does,” Tam said to a customer who commented on his memory while picking up her stretched shoes.
While Kaimuki is often linked with Waialae Avenue businesses, the community’s residences extend from the lush heights of Wilhelmina Rise on the mauka side to Diamond Head on the makai side.
The community is split by Waialae. The upper half runs from Sierra Drive to slightly east of Kahala Mall, while the lower half cuts off at Alohea Avenue on the makai side and reaches from Fifth Avenue to east of Kahala Mall.
Most people consider Waialae Avenue to be part of Kaimuki, even though the city technically considers a small stretch of the street to be part of Palolo.
Much of Kaimuki is asphalt and concrete. Areas near Wilhelmina Rise and Waialae Avenue tend to be more densely populated, with smaller houses and yards. Near Diamond Head are multi-level houses with large yards.
Kaimuki also has its share of homeless people. Early and late, some sleep in storefronts.
Since 1979, Kon Ping Young has owned the Crack Seed Store near the corner of Koko Head and Waialae avenues. It’s one of the few longstanding mom-and-pops that remind shoppers of decades past. No more than a few customers at a time can fit inside — the room is crowded with rows of wide, glass jars stuffed with items like dried cuttlefish and li hing mango.
Though Young took over the business nearly 40 years ago, the Crack Seed Store has been open since the late 1950s.
Walking down Waialae Avenue today, past honking cars and customers lined out the door at mealtimes, the atmosphere seems far from the slow-paced tempo of decades past.
Still, Kaimuki has kept its charm. The sidewalks and streets are kept in good condition, and shop owners are pleasant to one another, he said. There aren’t many chain stores, and their absence allows locally owned businesses to engage in friendly competition.
“The business climate has been pretty good in Kaimuki,” Young said. “People are nice and patient.”
Most of Young’s customers are local, but tourists manage to find it. On either side of the road, tour buses stop every few blocks. Social media, travel reviews and magazine features in Hawaii and Japan have put Waialae Avenue on the map as a trendy district, he said.
“I see a lot of people taking pictures and things like that,” Young said, noting that smart phones seem to have contributed to Kaimuki’s popularity.
Many of the family businesses that once lined Waialae are gone, but not because of financial hardship, Young said. Retiring business owners struggle to keep their stores in the family or find someone to take over, he said. Young, whose four children have their own careers, said he’ll have to look elsewhere when it’s time for him to retire.
Kaimuki’s diverse sense of community is what drew Honolulu restaurateur Ed Kenney to open three of his four restaurants off of Waialae and 9th avenues. It was an obvious choice, he said, recalling his childhood in the 1970s walking through the business district with his brother.
Traveling from Kahala to Punahou School, Kenney’s transfer point on the bus was at Koko Head Avenue, just across from the Crack Seed Store, where he stopped for Icees and candy. Back then, the now-closed Queen Theater showed adult and surf films. A coin shop, manapua and dim sum eatery, and a Thrifty drug store were all that once stood in the area, he said.
“When it was time to open a restaurant, I always knew that this was the area I wanted it to be in,” Kenney said, perched atop a barstool at his Mud Hen Water restaurant.
Kenney also owns Mahina & Sun’s in Waikiki. Working in Honolulu’s tourist hub is different, he said, noting that employees are paid more, plates cost more and career chefs are looking for work.
At his Kaimuki restaurants — Town, Kaimuki Superette and Mud Hen Water — Kenney said he often employs University of Hawaii students who live nearby and cooks looking for experience they won’t get elsewhere, like butchering animals or working at multiple kitchen stations.
Kaimuki, with its array of locally owned businesses and “sleepy town” feel, is one-of-a-kind on Oahu, he said. And rent is reasonable for those business owners, Kenney said, especially compared to Waikiki or Ala Moana.
Kenney opened Town 11 years ago, hoping to play off of San Francisco’s cuisine and growing farm-to-table movement.
He’s also tried to bring outdoor dining to Waialae by renovating Town to add 25 outdoor tables. Kenney got rid of three parking spaces to add seating at Mud Hen Water.
“As things seemed to have grown, you know, now we have lots of yoga studios, different coffee shops, sandwich shops.” — Sharon Schneider
When Kenney opened Town, “not a whole lot was going on” near the restaurant, he said. Now, as other food spots and bars have popped up nearby, Kenney said people expect him to be uneasy about competition.
But he welcomes new businesses and sees them as enhancing Kaimuki’s atmosphere.
“People say, ‘Why would you even open a restaurant to compete with yourself?’” Kenney said. “And it’s … just creating more buzz and activity down here.”
Kenney would like to see more community events in Kaimuki like Chinatown’s First Fridays. “Parklets,” or temporary parks in street parking stalls, could be an option, he said. The mini-attractions sprung up in Kakaako and Downtown Honolulu in September.
Though Kenney has ideas for new directions Kaimuki can take, he doesn’t feel Waialae Avenue has changed much, overall. Sure, tourists visit (sometimes snapping selfies at Kaimuki Superette, Kenney noted, without eating anything) and new owners have taken over old shops, but the neighborhood’s character still feels like it did when he was a kid, he said.
Others who feel the change has been more pronounced may be nostalgic for Kaimuki’s old shops, he said. But Kaimuki is still full of mom-and-pops, he said, rattling off names of family owned eateries nearby.
Change is positive and neighborhoods shouldn’t be stuck in a time capsule, Kenney said.
“I think human nature is to be resistant to change and you’re always going to get that,” Kenney said. “But once they experience it and see what it’s about … they come around.”
The organization Envision Kaimuki is looking to anticipate how the community will continue to evolve and tries to balance commercial and residential interests.
Sharon Schneider, local neighborhood board member and Envision Kaimuki founder, had lived in the community since the late-1970s until she spent a decade in Southern California. After moving back in 2003, she noticed changes.
“I remember when I came back, there were just a couple of (business owners) trying out different things,” she said. “And as things seemed to have grown, you know, now we have lots of yoga studios, different coffee shops, sandwich shops.”
Envision Kaimuki meetings bring together local representatives, residents, architects and community planners to discuss potential future plans, she said. Supporting businesses, becoming more pedestrian-friendly and upping participation in community events are all issues Envision Kaimuki has looked at tackling.
Members also advocate for complete streets, which ensure that people travel more safely and conveniently whether they’re walking, biking or driving.
Locals are interested in preventing overdevelopment and maintaining historical buildings. And they’re proud to have small, locally owned businesses in their backyards, Schneider said, even though a lack of parking is problematic for businesses and residents.
The group is looking to foster a sense of community for the growing group of Kaimuki seniors and give the business district a facelift, said fellow Envision Kaimuki member Mitsue Cook.
The group’s focus is on long-term problems, Schneider said.
“Kaimuki is a nice, funky neighborhood, but we wanted to keep it with this nice feel, a very local feel,” she said.