Rain drizzles over Waikiki beach on an overcast May day, but Joanne Burns and her mother Robyn, who are on vacation from Sydney, Australia, don’t seem to mind.

They sit eating lunch at a bench in a public pavilion not far from the iconic bronze statue of Duke Kahanamoku. Sandwiched between the beach and Kalakaua Avenue, the pavilion offers a view of world famous surf breaks and protection from the elements.

Nearby people read and take photos. An old woman digs through the trash, collecting recyclables.

They have just finished their lunch when two police officers pull up on bikes to confront a scruffy-looking man who sits on the bench behind them. The officers sift through his possessions and ask him if he has a medical marijuana card.

“There’s people over there,” one of the officers tells him. “There’s children, you know?”

Joanne says she noticed him smoking pot earlier. She wasn’t particularly bothered by it, but these city pavilions at Kuhio Beach Park have become notorious harbors for homeless people and drug activity.

Joanne Burns sits at a pavilion in Waikiki on an overcast day in May. Behind her, a police officer questions a man about smoking pot. Natanya Friedheim/ Civil Beat

Lifeguards who work at the beach are often pulled from their assigned duties to deal with fights, defecation and lewd acts, according to a recent Hawaii News Now report.

“It’s a breeding ground for violence and criminal activity and some of this stuff is just absolutely disgusting and embarrassing,” said Honolulu City Councilman Trevor Ozawa, who represents the area.

The Honolulu Police Department made no one available for comment, but Ozawa thinks he has a solution.

“Destroy the pavilions,” he said. “Demolish them.”

Bill 37, a measure he introduced in late April, would require the city to remove any public park building in Waikiki, excluding restrooms, where there is proof of drug dealing or drug use. The city’s construction department has the power to remove the pavilions along Kalakaua, but this bill would require it, Ozawa said.

When outreach workers from the Institute for Human Services visit the pavilions they find people using methamphetamine and opioids and drinking alcohol, said IHS spokesman Kimo Carvalho.

“Ok, tear down the facility, but they’re going to go somewhere else and they’re probably going to be in their community (in Waikiki),” Carvalho said.

Kalakaua Avenue covered pavillions with sleeping person on mat near Lifeguard tower 2C.
Councilman Trevor Ozawa wants the city to demolish the covered pavilions along Kalakaua Avenue, where drug activity is common. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Even when a drug addict accepts treatment from an outreach worker, it can sometimes be impossible to find an outpatient bed available to put them in.

What we really need is a significant investment in treatment, housing and employment,” Carvalho said.

Gaye Chan said the proposal plays into a fantasy that people who are homeless and addicted to drugs will somehow disappear. Demolishing buildings costs the city money, she added, money that could be spent on housing or treatment.

Chan, the chair of the University of Hawaii Manoa Department of Art and Art History, is a conceptual artist whose work explores public space.

“It’s violence against poor people,” she said.

Ozawa wants to see the pavilions replaced by open space, trees or art. He said the pavillions are hiding places where people feel comfortable, even territorial, and embolden to use or sell drugs.

“It creates less hidden areas,” he said. “It exposes this area to more sunlight and visibility, transparency so that things can’t be hidden. People cannot feel as if they are secure in their illegal activities and we have more eyes on the area.”

Vendors And Public Space

The pavilions have been troublesome for years, said Robert Finley, chair of the Waikiki Neighborhood Board.

Rather than knock them down, Finley thinks the city should rent the spaces to vendors who can keep them clear of crime.

The city already rents two of the pavilions out as concession stands and The Waikiki Improvement Association is in discussions with the city about renting another to a company that would provide lockers for beachgoers.

The city rents this pavilion to Waikiki Grass Shack Bistro. Natanya Friedheim/ Civil Beat

Tables in a pavilion rented to Waikiki Grass Shack Bistro bear signs that read “TABLE RESERVED.” Instead of benches, customers sit on stools.

Part of what’s nice about the public pavilions is that anyone can bring their takeout to the benches and sit for free, said Robyn Burns.

“Who is it for and what is public? Public is for everybody,” Joanne Burns said.

Gamblers In Chinatown Got Creative

Alvin Au is the Downtown-Chinatown Neighborhood Board chair, but worked as the deputy director of the parks department back when the city removed the roof from a block-long pavilion in Chinatown’s River Street Mall where illegal gambling had been rampant. 

The idea was that if there was no shade, the gamblers would leave, Au said. Instead, they brought their own chairs and tarps.

The gambling leads to gang activity and fights, and upsets merchants who run dim sum and manapua restaurants along the promenade. It’s hard to say if removing the roof helped deter crime.

The roof of these River Street seating areas were removed at some point near the Kukui Street intersection.
The roof of these River Street seating areas was removed near the Kukui Street intersection. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

People have complained that there’s still daily gambling “for substantial amounts” at the pavilion, Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga, who represents the area, said in an email.

“The gamblers were very innovative,” Au said.

The pavilions in Waikiki were built as a hangout for locals and tourists alike, and once regularly attracted chess players. Today, some are used almost exclusively by Honolulu’s growing homeless population.

“It’s a bad look for America, isn’t it?” Robyn Burns says as police escort the alleged pot smoker from the pavilion where she just finished lunch.

Thoughts on this or any other story? Write a Letter to the Editor. Send to news@civilbeat.org and put Letter in the subject line. 200 words max. You need to use your name and city and include a contact phone for verification purposes. And you can still comment on stories on our Facebook page.

About the Author