At the corner of Nuuanu Avenue and Hotel Street, Mayor Kirk Caldwell welcomes visitors to Honolulu. His disembodied voice emerges from a red, telephone booth-shaped box with a glass touchscreen.

Approach the box, and you’ll notice the glass is shattered, as if a passerby took offense to the mayor and punched him in the face.

When the box was installed, its camera allowed users to take selfies. The first time I walked by it last year, a homeless woman had parked her shopping cart and was making funny faces, delighted with the box.

At first, the box featured a touchscreen map of our historic Chinatown District. Unfortunately, the map is broken now. The assault on the booth gave it a concussion, and users risk cutting their fingers on the cracked screen.

Cracked glass on kiosk located on Hotel St near Nuuanu Avenue.
What were city officials thinking when they installed this visitor information kiosk in a part of Honolulu where it was sure to be vandalized. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

A Failure To Plan And Prioritize

The box is a monument to poor urban planning.

Anyone familiar with Hotel Street could have told you the box would be abused and vandalized. It probably cost thousands of dollars to install and it wasn’t long before it was vandalized.

NOTE: pick the correct link

Maybe one tourist used it in that time. Probably not. Except for the patrons of a few popular restaurants and bars, tourists (and locals) tend to avoid Hotel Street because it’s dirty and crime-ridden. 

Besides the poor location, the box is probably unnecessary. Even the homeless people on Hotel Street have smartphones. They can take selfies and consult Google Maps just fine.

The box represents a failure to prioritize.

Government can’t do everything. Time and money are limited. Yet vanity projects are built while existing infrastructure languishes in disrepair.

We aren’t used to thinking of sidewalks as infrastructure; they’re forgotten underfoot. But they make a difference. When clean and clear of obstruction, they invite pedestrian traffic. When stained by human waste and littered with trash, they discourage it.

If visitors and locals are not enjoying the rich cultural heritage of Chinatown, it’s probably because they find it scary or disgusting, not because they lack a map.

Anyone familiar with Hotel Street could have told you the box would be abused and vandalized.

Even during the day, people are routinely robbed at knifepoint, and elderly women fear purse snatchers.

Chinatown Watch is a website that allows citizens to document illegal behavior. One recent photo depicts a naked man masturbating in a parking lot while a woman walks by with her child, less than a block away from the police substation. Many pictures record graffiti, illegal drug use and litter.

First This, Then That

In response to recent crime, the Honolulu Police Department has pledged to hire more detectives and increase patrols islandwide.

This is laudable, but it might be worthwhile to focus their effort in one neighborhood for proof of concept that they can curb crime and clean up the streets. After a successful pilot program, they can repeat the process in the neighborhoods of highest need.

Chinatown is ripe for cleaning up. It’s adjacent to the central business district, and a police substation is parked in the middle of it. The city should launch an intensive improvement campaign.

Work with local businesses to identify areas of greatest need. Coordinate law enforcement and public sanitation. Clear the sidewalks and clean them thoroughly. Enact regular patrols to keep them clean. Discourage drug dealers and violent criminals from loitering in the area.

Government should prove it can fulfill basic functions before it aspires to more. Fill the potholes, clean the sidewalks, and fight crime. We don’t need maps or selfies.

Caldwell is thought to have gubernatorial ambitions. But if he can’t protect his phone booth avatar from violent crime, it’s unclear that he’ll be able to safeguard the state.

There is one constituency that will be disappointed if we stop building map obelisks. When pedestrians stop to take selfies or listen to the mayor’s greeting, they’re prime targets for purse snatchers.

Support Civil Beat during the season of giving.

As a small nonprofit newsroom, our mission is powered by readers like you. But did you know that less than 1% of readers donate to Civil Beat?

Give today and support local journalism that helps to inform, empower and connect.

About the Author