- Special Projects
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Over 1,800 daily and weekly newspapers in the U.S. have ceased operations since 2004 — among them the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and the Honolulu Weekly. Studies have shown that when local journalism disappears, government financing costs go up, fewer people run for public office, elected officials become less responsive to their constituents, and voter turnout decreases.
Our small nonprofit newsroom works hard every day to present local news in a deep and transparent way, without fear or favor.
We also rely on donations from readers like you to keep us afloat. The more support we receive; the stronger, more sustainable our journalism becomes; the more accountable we are to you. Please consider supporting our small newsroom with a tax-deductible gift.