Lena Spain-Suzuki was fed up with the dirty bathrooms at Pokai Bay Beach Park. Last year, the beige comfort station’s walls were covered with graffiti. The trash cans were overflowing and there was a pungent smell inside.

So she teamed up with residents from Pu‘uhonua ‘O Waianae — a self-organized homeless community in Waianae — to do something about it.

“I said, ‘Let’s do this’ and we took it upon ourselves to get this place cleaned,” Spain-Suzuki said.

In November 2020, Spain-Suzuki and the hui of Waianae residents and volunteers set out to beautify the otherwise rundown bathrooms. The group cleaned around the park and inside the bathrooms, removed the graffiti and primed the bathroom walls for a colorful mural painted by Westside artists.

“We are taking back these spaces because once we clean, we own. It’s all of our kuleana,” Spain-Suzuki said.

Westside Parks Pokai Bay Beach Park Mural Bathrooms
Lena Spain-Suzuki and her fellow volunteers inside the newly painted bathrooms at Pokai Bay Beach Park. Courtesy: Lena Spain-Suzuki

The upkeep of parks is a concern for many Westside residents who feel like their beloved public spaces aren’t being taken care of.

“Neglected,” “abused” and “overlooked” are some of the adjectives that Westside residents used when discussing parks at a recent Civil Beat Talk Story event.

Their frustrations are based in reality.

“We’re seeing homelessness, illegal dumping, vandalism, theft, all of those things happening,” says Department of Parks and Recreation Deputy Director Kehau Pu‘u. “All of the issues we see in our communities are magnified in our parks.”

Litter and vandalism are the most common problems. According to an audit by the city auditor’s office, vandalism is one of the primary challenges for maintaining parks because of its unpredictable occurrence and costs.

Pu‘u started with the parks department in June. A Nanakuli resident, she and her family frequent Kalanianaole Beach Park and although it’s her favorite, she noted the ‘opala, or trash, she often sees after beach parties and long weekends.

So Pu‘u can understand why people have a negative perception of how the parks are cared for. She shared that perception growing up and knows that things out in her neighborhood aren’t always the best.

“We don’t have the best health or economic statistics, but for our department, we want to make sure things are more equitable and that we’re taking care of all of our districts,” Pu‘u says.

Westside Parks Pokai Bay Beach Park Bathrooms
The parks department says comfort stations at all parks get cleaned once a day. Kuʻu Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2021

Honolulu’s parks are divided into five districts. District 3 – or the Leeward Oahu district – encompasses 93 parks from Wahiawa to Ewa and Pearl City to Waianae. The largest and most visited parks in this district, according to a 2016 report, are Kapolei Regional Park, Makaha Beach Park, and Ewa Mahiko Park.

However, with over 300 parks on the island, Honolulu ranked 312th out of 319 comparable counties in the country in the 2020 National Community Survey, which measures the “livability” of counties across the states. Fewer than half of those surveyed thought the parks were excellent or good — much lower than the national average.

Satisfaction with parks may come down to how well they are maintained. A 2019 city auditor’s report of the department found that more of the parks’ maintenance budget for groundskeeping, custodial and maintenance services went to parks in East Honolulu, despite the lower number of parks and recorded instances of vandalism.

Michael Loftin, cofounder and executive director of 808 Cleanups, sees active participation in their cleanups across the island. The environmental nonprofit has hosted litter and graffiti removal on Oahu since 2014 and has removed almost 700,000 pounds of rubbish with thousands of volunteers showing up and even spearheading their own community-led events.

“Every community has people who are motivated to help. On the people’s side, there are always volunteers. The difference I see is on the government side and where resources are poured into. It seems like the Westside doesn’t get as much,” Loftin says.

And this may be why community members feel like they have to be the champions of their own parks. Scheduling weekly cleanups. Continual graffiti removal and repainting. Nightly patrols. Tracking improvement projects at neighborhood board meetings. All of these community-led efforts to keep parks safe and sanitary have become their prime responsibility.

There are more than a dozen groups on the Westside working to keep the parks usable for the public and most of the work is done by the community members themselves.

Westside Parks Pokai Bay Beach Park Litter Signs
Homemade signs made by community members remind beachgoers at Pokai Bay Beach Park to mind their trash. Kuʻu Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2021

It’s not always easy. Spain-Suzuki got a verbal warning for orchestrating the mural painting. The group didn’t file proper paperwork with the parks department, but Spain-Suzuki questioned the permitting process from the beginning.

“Why do I have to ask for approval for this when the bathrooms can’t even be kept clean? When we are the ones doing the cleaning?” she said.

Pu‘u said that she loved seeing the community efforts at Pokai before she started in her position. Seeing the restoration of the Ku‘ilioloa Heiau at the bay’s edge actually gave her more confidence in joining the city department.

“We really do want to work with our community to make these places better because they’re our spaces,” Pu‘u says.

Although she says it’s the city’s job to maintain and fix up the parks, Pu‘u believes that it is a “kakou kuleana” — or a shared responsibility — to take care of them.

The biggest question for her is, how can the city work better with the community?

“We really do appreciate and mahalo the community for their efforts, but we’re open to new ideas and new ways to connect with them,” Pu‘u says.

Some residents want more communication and transparency from the parks department, but others find it hard to get their own community involved. One solution, Spain-Suzuki says, may be to tell the history and the stories of these places.

Spain-Suzuki wants her beloved park to have official signs to mark the mo‘olelo — stories — that makes this place special. She envisions a walkway up to the heiau that kupuna can exercise on, with recognition of the sacred structure. Spain-Suzuki believes that knowing the story behind these beloved places will motivate the community to care for them.

“There are so many beautiful stories for these places that we are disconnected from, but we will get back to that. That’s how we can build true community,” Spain-Suzuki says.

Here are three parks on the Westside and the people who love them and want to keep them in order:

Kea‘au Beach Park

Micah Doane currently resides in Waikele, but his special connection to Kea‘au Beach Park comes from his Makua-born grandmother. She used to take him, along with his siblings and uncles, to these Westside beaches, calling it “heaven on earth.”

As the founder of Protectors of Paradise, a stewardship nonprofit focused on Westside beaches from Kea‘au on, Doane works to protect the paradise of his grandparents for his children. He calls all of the litter and vandalism of these public spaces “abuse” and doesn’t think his children should grow up in places that are “so neglected and disrespected.”

Illegal dumping is a persistent problem at the north side of Keaau Beach Park. Abandoned vehicles and home goods are often found littered across the beach. Kuʻu Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2021

“Majority of the time my 4-year-old son goes to the beaches, it’s because I’m cleaning it up,” Doane says.

It’s frustrating work knowing that the beach won’t stay clean past a couple of hours. In the five years since launching his nonprofit, Doane says his hui has removed thousands of pounds of trash with little long term improvement. So, they’re hoping for more assistance from the city.

“It’s so easy to lose morale and money, so we want to see what kind of support we can get from the government to continue our work there,” Doane says.

He also points to another change he’s seen over the years: the influx of tourists to Westside beaches.

“Before we felt really isolated out there, but with social media, now our beaches have become a popular spot for visitors,” Doane says.

His dream is to have a cultural classroom out at the park, so that locals and tourists alike can learn about the area and how to mālama ʻāina – take care of the land. Doane and his group have started small gardens across the Waianae Coast at various parks, hoping to create an incentive for the community to get involved.

“The land offers a lot of opportunities for usage, besides just sitting back and relaxing,” Doane says.

One‘ula Beach Park

Penelope Parnes is used to seeing large groups of volunteers cleaning up One‘ula Beach Park. She says that the young and old, students and veterans — even residents who don’t live in the neighborhood — come out to maintain this park.

She’s lived in Ewa for 15 years and counting, often facilitating cleanups at Hau Bush in partnership with other organizations, like Ewa Surf Club, Blue Zones and the local JROTC program. She also joined 808Cleanups in 2017.

“We’ve removed over 60,000 pounds of rubbish from Hau Bush and this happened because of the continued stewardship of community volunteers,” Parnes says.

Penelope Parnes, second from left, walks along One’ula Beach Park with volunteers from Ewa Beach Surf Club at a recent clean-up. Courtesy: Tyler Shortt/2020

The biggest issue she sees is the lack of a dedicated city-appointed caretaker. She believes that an individual, who overlooks the park maintenance, would improve the park and create accountability.

Parnes also thinks that the parks department should collaborate with the community more. In one of her Ewa Neighborhood Board Parks Committee meetings, the group pitched an improvement plan that included graveling and expanding the beach area. When they sent it to the parks department, Parnes says she was told to hold off until the department can fully review the environmental impacts.

“It’s impossible to even get answers to questions, let alone establish a partnership,” Parnes says.

In a recent Ewa Neighborhood Board meeting, Parnes, who serves on the board, told the parks department director, Laura Thielen, that her community would like a better relationship with parks staff.

“I want to support the different efforts going on. The parks are loved a lot, but they also get loved to death, so we definitely need the help,” Thielen responded.

Parnes just wants to see improvements done when they say they will be done. The published One‘ula Beach Park Master Plan mapped out two comfort stations, a community center and ball field for that Ewa area. So far, only one bathroom has been built.

“The community is and has done everything in our power to maintain our parks,” Parnes says, “I invite anyone to see that we care with our hearts and our hands.”

Pokai Bay Beach Park

Lena Spain-Suzuki grew up a mile from Pokai Bay Beach Park. Her fondest childhood memories happened there – from birthdays to just hanging out on the weekend. She remembers playing on the bay’s rock wall, feeling the strongest sense of community with other Westside kids.

“It didn’t matter if you were from Makaha or Lualualei. We were all just playing together,” Spain-Suzuki says.

Since the mural painting last November, she and her fellow “‘āina warriors” have held multiple cleanups and gatherings at the park. Almost 200 volunteers came in February to clean up the beach, playground and heiau. She has also worked with the homeless community that lives at the park, calling on them to be good stewards of the area, often bringing food and supplies as well as connecting them to social workers and services.

Waianae Pokai Bay Cleanup
Volunteers pick up trash and cut the grass at Pokai Bay Beach Park in Waianae. Courtesy: Lynette Cruz

Along with Pu‘uhonua O Wai‘anae’s Hui Aloha, some have formed a “bathroom brigade,” cleaning the bathrooms when other volunteers can’t make it out. Spain-Suzuki says that they have helped six people find housing.

Her greatest success, she says, was seeing local kupuna and homeless community members come together to make lei in celebration of May Day. The group played music and Spain-Suzuki even got up to dance a hula for her friends. At one of her La Kupuna – or kupuna days – they sat together in the grass and talked about the future of their shared Pokai Bay.

“Good stewardship means including everyone in your village and doing what is right for the place that you’re in,” Spain-Suzuki says.

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