Block Party Blockade
Community / The city of Honolulu has stepped into the fray of Chinatown’s ongoing nightlife dysfunction, and First Friday, the art movement that occurs between 5–9pm on the first Friday of each month to support local art and economy, is not without consequence. The City and County of Honolulu Department of Transportation (DOT) held a meeting at the Hawaii Theatre on Wed., Oct. 17 proposing a change in the way organizers should ask for permission to host events in the neighborhood. If implemented, the change would limit the amount of events in Chinatown to 24 per year, or two each month. What the city designates as Legacy events, such as the Chinese New Year Celebration or Murphy’s Pro Bowl block party, as well as younger events the city chooses to support. The proposal sets a maximum of three “alcohol events” in four months, “alcohol events” being any event where alcohol is served in satellite bars outside. You know: Hallowbaloo.
DOT Director Wayne Yoshioka says DOT hopes the proposal falls on common ground. “We met with neighborhood and business organizations individually to get their input . . . it worked actually, because we did get everybody’s thoughts as to what it should be. [Doing it that way] let us look for commonalities,” Yoshioka says.
At the meeting, the initial program originally considered First Friday to be a non-Legacy event, which would be forced out by more highly prioritized Legacy events in March and October. The majority of attendees–Chinatown business owners and residents–in the room questioned not allowing a First Friday in those months. They asked how, logistically, the streets would be expected to handle the overflow of traffic without the street closures and extra officers. After all, people would still come out in en masse on the first Friday of the month, by habit. But in a follow-up phone interview, Yoshioka admitted that since this limitation “was not met with any sort of support, it was universal; everybody said [that we] can’t do that,” they have reinstated a First Friday event every month.
At the meeting, Dave Stewart, owner of Brasserie Du Vin, The Venue, Bar 35 and BamuTwo, said plainly, “What we want is no other events on First Friday. It’s its own entity. No one is in charge.” On the phone, Stewart clarified that First Friday isn’t, in fact, a block party. “What most people don’t understand is that First Friday isn’t something that somebody puts on,” he said. “It just happens. No one’s in charge.”
J.J. Niebuhr, President of the Arts District Merchants Association (ADMA), says the city’s organization of events in Chinatown is overdue. “What’s happening now should have happened 10 years ago,” he said. “[First Friday] is all based on a national phenomenon that cleans art districts and neighborhoods . . . You can’t take Chinatown and make a profit off it for one night, when there’s so many families down here working hard.”
Representing the Hawaii Theatre Center, Burton White explained his issues with the proposal in regards to its effect on First Friday. “I have reservations with the city telling private businesses what they can do on their own properties,” he said, and questioned the definition of First Friday as an “event” that deserves the same scrutiny as the larger block parties. “Isn’t it a premises event?” he asked, inciting applause from a majority of the attendees. He also questioned why the Hawaii Theatre Center, as a 501c3 non-profit organization, was excluded from the Legacy Committee.
Event organizers are still allowed to apply for a permit, as there are currently three open spaces in the possible schedule. If only one organization applies for a permit, they’ll likely get approved–providing all permit requirements are met–but if more than one organization applies for the same spot on the schedule, a lottery will decide which permit is granted, and the event will then have a three-year trial period to prove itself a healthy event for the community. After the third year, the Legacy Committee will evaluate the event and vote on whether it should be granted Legacy status. They will present their vote to the City, who retains final approval. (The Hawaii Theatre Center has subsequently been added to the committee, prohibiting the possibility of a gridlock in the voting process as the 7th member, along with ADMA, the Chinatown Business & Community Association, the Chinese Cultural Center, the Chinatown Improvement District, the Chinese Merchants Association and the Downtown Neighborhood Board No. 13).
“We do classify [First Friday] as an event, because it requires as much logistic support as a regular event,” said Yoshioka on the phone. “TheBus rerouting, the request for more HPD officers, the subsequent clean-up . . . We don’t list it as an alcohol event, because the alcohol is not served in the street. It’s being served in the bars and everything else. That’s their business. We’re saying the minute you come out of your bar and start serving it on the road, it becomes an alcohol event.”
The proposal is still in flux, and will be discussed further by the downtown neighborhood board at their meeting on Nov. 1. Yoshioka says he hopes to see it in effect by the end of the year.