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Chinatown reboot includes an arts hub, more mental health treatment, and activating parks

Chinatown Honolulu produce
Noe Tanigawa
A worker wheels produce through Chinatown.

A year ago, Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi walked Chinatown with his department heads to survey conditions on the ground, and he promised to deliver relief. This week, the administration reported back to constituents in a live community meeting.

Over 70 people attended what was, in essence, a meeting with Mayor Rick Blangiardi's cabinet. Longtime Chinatown observers and activists were there, including neighborhood board member Chu Lan Shubert Kwok.

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Office of Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi
Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi and C. Makanani Salā, executive director of the Mayor's Office of Culture and Arts, on Feb. 23, 2022.

"I've been working with city government for a long, long time. And this is the first time that I feel confident that we're going to see progress for real," Kwok said.

Not all agree, but the mood was cordial and constructive as Blangiardi acknowledged public perceptions about Chinatown as dirty, and scary, with drugs and homeless people.

Today, according to new numbers provided by the Honolulu Police Department, the reality is that crime is down in Chinatown.

HPD Major Calvin Sung, District 1 Commander, says by the end of last year, miscellaneous crimes like sleeping on the sidewalk dropped sharply.

"There was a 60% decrease from the first half of 2021 to the second half of 2021 because of more additional officer presence in Chinatown," Sung said.

Burglaries were down 23% by the end of 2021 and car break-ins were down 13%.

Chinatown groceries daily life
Noe Tanigawa

Trish La Chica, the city's new director of Housing and Homelessness points out that despite distressing behavior and filth on the streets, crime statistics now are substantially lower than they were in the 1990s.

"So what this tells us is, what we're in Chinatown is not a major crime issue, but really, a public health issue," she said.

La Chica is hopeful about a partnership with the state's Hawaiʻi Cares program, seeking to fast-track assessment, treatment and rehabilitation for the mentally ill.

Blangiardi hailed the city's new Crisis Outreach and Response Engagement, or CORE, department as a frontline service designed to ease the burden on police and emergency rooms. CORE is now a part of City Emergency Medical Services, under Director Dr. James Ireland.

"We want to start treatment in the streets if needed, and that's why we're bringing a psychiatrist onto the team, and nurse practitioners with expertise in mental health. One of the potentials is at the Punawai Rest Stop in ʻIwilei. There's a clinic already there, it's brand new. We may be using that to take people, rather than the ERs," Ireland said.

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Office of Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi
Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi at a clean-up in Chinatown.

CORE team members conduct outreach on the streets in red shirts. Ireland says their efforts should bear fruit this summer.

As clean-up efforts continue, Parks and Recreation Director Laura Thielen says partnerships are critical to the next phase of improving parks and public areas — and holding that ground.

"The key to the parks is going to be to activate them. There was a lot of work to activate parks pre-Covid. I was on the phone today on a working meeting with American Savings Bank and the Trust for Public Land. We are restarting the activation plans they had in place for Aʻala Park," Thielen said.

River Street near Aʻala Park has remained clear of homeless encampments since last year.

And, in a breakthrough, City Community Services Director Anton Krucky announced a date when meal service will stop at River of Life Mission. Some have blamed the service for attracting undesirable behavior to the neighborhood.

chinatown_river of life line.jpeg
Noe Tanigawa
A line at the River of Life Mission in Chinatown.

"Last night they had a board meeting, and with a unanimous vote, they said March 31 will be when the feeding will stop — so on or before March 31," Krucky said.

Blangiardi wove the speakers together, promising commitment and follow-through along the way. Paving is being repaired, trees replanted, and security cameras will go up. One for every intersection is the goal, according to Director of Design and Construction Alex Kozlov.

City Land Management Director Scott Hayashi says improvements to city properties are ongoing and he will be soliciting bids soon, for arts partners to form a creative hub at Chinatown Gateway Plaza. Blangiardi says they are setting the stage for a creative hub in Chinatown.

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Noe Tanigawa
The Downtown Art Center at Chinatown Gateway Plaza

"Moving in humanity and activity, that has a lot to do with energizing and we know that and we're very directed in those efforts to make that happen. And so I would be remiss if I didn't say I take it really close to home and personal with respect to commitment," Blangiardi said. "You see down there, Creative City. It's an entity created by my wife, Karen Chang, who's on this call."

Blangiardi is referring to a new nonprofit, The Creative City, dedicated to arts education and initiatives that enhance the quality of life. There's already an online gallery and events listing on The Creative City website.

"That's a name you'll hear a lot about going forward because it's really is going to be a combination of raising monies in the private sector to stage really high-quality events in Chinatown along with all the other things that are going to happen," Blangiardi said. "We talk about this on a regular basis at my house, but I just wanted you to know it doesn't get any deeper than that, and we're real sincere about it. I'm going to say it again as I said at the beginning, we are committed to this."

City Councilmember Carol Fukunaga flagged support for Resolution 2232, now before the council. It looks at how changes to the Chinatown special district laws could help area businesses.

The mayor invited everyone to this Saturday's Chinatown clean-up from 9 a.m. to noon. Meet at Union Mall. Over 250 people have pitched in at past events.

Here is Blangiardi's presentation from the live community meeting on Feb. 23, 2022. Click here for the Facebook live video.

Noe Tanigawa covered art, culture and ideas for two decades at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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