About the Author

Catherine Toth Fox

Born and raised on Oahu, Catherine Toth Fox is an editor, writer, children’s book author, blogger and former journalism instructor. She is currently the editor at large for Hawaii Magazine and lives in Honolulu with her husband, son and two dogs. You can follow her on Instagram @catherinetothfox. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

A draft design includes more tree cover, wider walkways, fitness equipment, an upgrade to its skate rink and a hula mound.

Growing up on Oahu, there were a few places I was warned about — and Aala Park was one of them.

It’s dangerous. Lots of criminal activity. Never use the public restroom.

Over the years there have been efforts to change the perception and climate at the triangular, 6.69-acre city park, situated at the west end of Chinatown and flanking Nuuanu Stream. In 2007 Chinatown merchants put on a series of events at the park with food tents, kiddie rides and an inflatable screen for movie nights. That didn’t last.

In 2019 the city opened a 10,000-square-foot off-leash dog park there, with a big grassy field, playground and a renovated restroom. Still, its infamous reputation persisted — and with good reason.

Just last year a 60-year-old man was reportedly attacked with an ax at the park, and a 36-year-old man was allegedly punched, pepper-sprayed, hit in the head with a skateboard and robbed by three others in the park’s notorious bathroom.

There’s also a transient homeless population here. According to the 2023 Point in Time count, conducted by Partners in Care, the region that includes Aala Park (Downtown Honolulu, Kalihi and Nuuanu) saw the second-largest percentage of unsheltered people with 22%. (Waianae had the largest percentage at 27%.) The number of people experiencing homelessness on Oahu, according to the annual survey, increased 2% over the past year.

But there’s a new initiative to revitalize this park, which, unbeknownst by many of us, has a long and storied history — one worth preserving and sharing.

The Trust for Public Land, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that has worked to protect places in Hawaii for 50 years, has identified Aala Park as the pilot project for its Parks for People program in Hawaii.

Aala Park today Homeless along King Street.
Aala Park has been identified by the Trust for Public Land to be part of a pilot project revitalizing public spaces in Hawaii. The park has a long-storied history and is an area of increasing residential density. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017)

“This park does have a big, inspiring history,” says Lea Hong, the organization’s Hawaii director. “There are definitely concerns about safety and security and dilapidated infrastructure, but there’s a desire for culturally relevant events and programming that hark back to its past while looking at the people who live there now.”

The area surrounding the park is expected to grow in density, Hong says, which makes this park, which today has 18,000 residents, half of whom are low-income, within a 10-minute walk, all the more crucial.

“It will be even more important for recreation, for connections to place,” she says. “It has tremendous potential. There’s a lot of great bones.”

The area where the park is located was once an important complex of Hawaiian fishponds and wetlands. The park was built in the early 1900s — then referred to as River Park — and hosted political rallies, ethnic festivals and community sports leagues. Located across the street from the city’s main train station, the park featured a bandstand, a hula mound and heavily used baseball fields that attracted a slew of spectators. It wasn’t uncommon to have baseball games all weekend, with vendors selling peanuts, cigars and candy. 

In 1912 the Outdoor Circle planted 22 monkeypod trees to shade the city’s first playground. In 1916 the first public restroom in Honolulu was built here.

“Positive activity tends to drive out the negative.”

Lea Hong, Trust for Public Land

According to Hong, the park even hosted sumo wrestling matches and served as the start of a marathon that ended in Haleiwa.

“Because of its location across the street from the railway station, it was really actively used,” she says. “It was the crossroads of cultures, too.”

The nonprofit, which specializes in securing funding to protect important sites like this one, spent a few years talking with the community and other stakeholders, collecting data and researching the historical and cultural signficance of the place. That culminated in a report that made it clear: Residents want a safe park with more activity and programs.

“If a park is positively activated, it makes the park safer,” Hong says. “It’s not just that people’s perceptions improve. Positive activity tends to drive out the negative.”

At the end of last year, with lots of input from the community, TLP settled on a proof-of-concept design to revitalize and reshape this urban park. The design, drafted by the University of Hawaii Community Design Center, features gardens, pickleball courts, fitness equipment, more trees, wider walkways, a hula mound, renovated restrooms and an updated skatepark. The nonprofit will meet with the city to discuss what’s possible — what the city can help fund and maintain — before moving forward.

Skateboarder does some tricks at Aala Park. 9 june 2017
The skateboard rink at Aala Park would be updated as part of the revitalization project. The nonprofit Trust for Public Land will meet with the city to discuss what the city can help fund and maintain before moving forward. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017)

But it’s not waiting around, either. Along with partner American Savings Bank, which prior to the pandemic opened its $100 million, 11-story campus across the street from the park, TPL has been organizing and supporting various events. The bank, which supplies security patrols in the neighborhood, has been holding fitness classes and sports events. There have been immigration fairs, skateboarding meets, and even a dog obedience class.

In December 2022 artists painted murals on the park’s restroom, basketball courts, skate park, seating areas and planter boxes. This year the park will host cultural classes and a Lunar New Year event.

TPL has been doing park projects like this around the country. About 10 years ago the nonprofit, along with the city and other partners, invested $10 million in renovations to the 1-acre Boeddeker Park in San Francisco’s tough Tenderloin neighborhood. The park, which originally opened in 1985, had become overrun by drug dealers, prostitutes and gangs. In fact, it had been ranked as the city’s worst playground in a survey conducted by the San Francisco Parks Alliance and the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department.

There are 50,000 people within walking distance of the park, located in a densely populated and culturally diverse neighborhood similar to where Aala Park is. Today, it hosts basketball games and boasts outdoor fitness equipment, walking paths, a garden and clubhouse actively used by neighborhood kids. And people feel safe, which was the whole point.

I would love to see Aala Park, once a central hub in Honolulu, transform into a symbol of what Hawaii parks should be — diverse, inclusive, safe — a reflection of the best parts of our community.

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About the Author

Catherine Toth Fox

Born and raised on Oahu, Catherine Toth Fox is an editor, writer, children’s book author, blogger and former journalism instructor. She is currently the editor at large for Hawaii Magazine and lives in Honolulu with her husband, son and two dogs. You can follow her on Instagram @catherinetothfox. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

IMO it is sad that Honolulu has become the breeding ground where homeless rule the streets and parks. And our government has allowed this to happen, following the lead of great states like California and Oregon, migration points where homeless flow to the islands seeking warmer weather. We have allowed this to happen with weak enforcement and much to sympathetic heart. The ACLU sues to stop sweeps, yet what about when Joe Aloha can't even walk down a sidewalk, or better yet a handicap person needs to get a wheel chair by a tent blocking the way. Until the city and state take a hard stand for taxpayers, not abusers, we will continue to sink into the dregs. You can't revitalize a park or area just because you plant some trees and start yoga classes. Case in point, the city wasted over $18M on upgrading Thomas Square, only to see more homeless move in. Are we spending tax money for the tax paying public, or to enhance the homeless take over experience?

wailani1961 · 1 month ago

Aala Park is not safe. Everyone familiar with the area knows to walk around the park and not through it. Until the issue of safety is tackled, no improvements to the park will change things. It will just be vandalized and destroyed. It may be better utilized as an affordable housing site. Build a mix use condo, hire security guards, fence up or landscape the park so there are designated entry and exit points that can be monitored to discourage criminal activities. Then maybe Aala park will be a park for more people to enjoy.

Mnemosyne · 1 month ago

I'll believe it when I see it. Until then I'd rather not get attacked. Where are all the current homeless going to disperse to?

drivewithbrains · 1 month ago

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