Things are looking a little shabby around Oahu lately.

I’ve frequently been accused of being too sensitive, but I just can’t get over the fact that everywhere I go, it seems like a dark, depressing shadow of decline is hovering over our island.

When I first moved back to Oahu in January 2003 after living on the mainland for 18 years, I was amazed at how spiffy clean and well-manicured everything looked. Honolulu in particular looked and felt like a city that was on the up and up, a place that had the potential in the 21st century to be the envy of the world.

Now Oahu has the sad, dystopian vibe you’d expect to see in a cyberpunk movie like “Blade Runner,” where massive skyscrapers tower over dirty streets littered with garbage.

Along a gorgeous harbor coastline at Neil A. Blaisdell Park, there are washed up shopping carts and bags of garbage left on the shore. Danny de Gracia/Civil Beat

The defining mark of many developing countries is that visitors typically experience a stunning, ultra-modern, opulent experience inside the walls of resorts or designated tourist areas, but outside them is a state of desperation and decay.

We see the same precedent in Hawaii where, for example, during the 2011 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference, state and county officials meticulously beautified the areas APEC dignitaries were expected to frequent to project the image that all was well in Honolulu.

This of course was government hypocrisy, because while our elected leaders gave select parts of the island a facelift for a short international conference, the rest of us locals got no such beautification campaigns in our areas.

Can you picture what then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev would have thought about America if he decided to wander out to Waimanalo Beach Park, and, after enjoying a spicy poke bowl and a little time frolicking amid the turquoise waves, decided to use the public bathrooms there?

Can you imagine what would happen if Medvedev went into the “Pupu” district of Lower Waipahu?

“America is great indeed,” I can imagine Medvedev saying to his wife, Svetlana. “Imagine a country so free, one can throw trash on the streets!”

Beautification Campaign Needed

Since Hawaii legislators have recently been on a Singapore kick of attempting to find model policy solutions for our problems in the Asian tiger city-state of Singapore, my recommendation is that they take a page from the late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s beautification campaigns.

Singapore has historically recognized that economic success and global trade is influenced in no small part by how aesthetically pleasing the host country is. Much like Hawaii, Singapore is a shipping hub, not a natural resource mother lode, but it has thrived because its government has made every effort to keep it in prime condition.

When Singapore gained independence, Prime Minister Lee showed fanatical attention to detail in building the foundation for future success with gardens/landscaping, infrastructure and a desire to win people over with beauty from the minute they landed at the airport. His plan worked, and to this day, Singapore continues to prioritize beautification as a key part of its economic plan.

As an expatriate from Texas, I’m reminded of something former President Lyndon B. Johnson’s wife Lady Bird once said: “Ugliness is so grim. A little beauty, something that is lovely, I think, can help create harmony which will lessen tensions.”

At Waimanalo Beach Park, a large pile of tires, garbage bags, fishing nets and other debris has been heaped in the middle of the parking lot for months. Danny de Gracia/Civil Beat

Like Lee, Lady Bird took a beautification approach to the nation’s highways and public areas while she was first lady, and her campaigns were highly successful at making once dilapidated spaces look gorgeous and modern.

Let’s be honest. It is unacceptable for any major city like Honolulu to have beat up, pothole-peppered streets, dirty parks, leaky garbage cans, atrocious public bathrooms, overgrown grassy medians and crumbling infrastructure.

Of course, there will always come the excuses that upkeep costs a lot of money, that the city has so many other things to do right now, and specious claims that if you want better public areas, you have to be willing to pay more taxes. That’s laughable, considering we’re also asked who will build the roads or collect trash if there is no government?

Concrete tables are crumbling at Ala Moana Regional Park, supposedly a Honolulu showcase. Danny de Gracia/Civil Beat

Mayor Kirk Caldwell needs to ask Gov. David Ige to take a bus loaded with cabinet members from both administrations on a tour around the island. They should then proceed to visit every highway, street, public park, public bathroom and so on with notepads in hand.

Whenever they find broken benches, busted trash cans, dirty bathrooms, plugged up toilets, weeds growing in the sidewalk, or anything that is any state of disrepair, these things should be written down and a clean-up crew should be dispatched within 48 hours to attend to it. And not only that, both Caldwell and Ige should be thinking about ways to improve and beautify the existing public areas as well.

Further, the Legislature and City Council need to shift whatever funding is necessary and do whatever it takes to fund a makeover. Instead of departments using general funds at the end of a fiscal year to buy extra stuff they don’t need just to empty their balance, that money needs to transfer right into infrastructure upkeep and public beautification. Declare an emergency if it speeds up the procurement, because Hawaii is truly in a crisis.

For those who say there is “no time” for our busy leaders and their overworked staff to do this, let me politely remind you that the first thing that happens whenever there’s a change of command at the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command or the Pacific Air Forces is that the new commanders thoroughly tour their bases and tell their staff, “Trim that tree! Pave that pothole! Fertilize that grass! Repaint that building!” while also having time to think about national security.

The issue is not time or funding when it comes to keeping Hawaii aesthetic and well-maintained. The issue is choice and attention to detail. Don’t call us the “Aloha State” if you’re not willing to take care of our public areas.

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About the Author

  • Danny de Gracia

    Danny de Gracia is a resident of Waipahu, a political scientist and an ordained minister.

    Danny holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and minor in Public Administration from UT San Antonio, 2001; a Master of Arts in  Political Science (concentration International Organizations) and minor in Humanities from Texas State University, 2002.

    He received his Doctor of Theology from Andersonville Theological Seminary in 2013 and Doctor of Ministry in 2014.

    Danny received his Ordination from United Fellowship of Christ Ministries International, (Non-Denominational Christian), in 2002.