Issue 6.3: June/July 2003

Heart of the City

story by Stu Dawrs
photos by Dana Edmunds

"I had to quit: I'd already ruined too many pairs of hundred-dollar shoes."

We were sitting at Kapono’s when Rich Richardson said this, enjoying the Aloha Tower watering hole’s nighttime view of Honolulu Harbor just a few dozen feet away. Slack-key guitar master Led Ka‘apana was doing his thing on stage, and Rich had just finished recounting the story of his harrowing attempt to swim home from the bar one night. Over the barrier and into the harbor’s somewhat yeasty depths he had gone; down a block to Nuuanu Avenue; and then out of the water for a dripping walk up the street to bed. Now he was extolling the virtues of Honolulu’s more pristine urban waterways.

"Comparatively speaking, I think Honolulu’s fountains are as beautiful as any city in the United States," he said, raising a mug in toast. Rich’s assessment is no pedestrian (so to speak) commentary: An avant-garde multimedia artist, he has an eye for the ironies and small beauties that exist in our day-to-day world. He also spends pretty much all his time downtown, serving as assistant director for the nonprofit gallery/performance space known as The Arts at Marks Garage. And he and his wife Helga, a graphic designer, run—and live in—Salon.5, a small, ultra-hip gallery in a classic Chinatown storefront just across Nuuanu Avenue from Mark’s Garage.

Cool it: Rich Richardson tests
the waters at First Hawaiian Center. 

Just around the corner from the historic Hawaii Theatre and an easy stagger from several of Oahu’s trendiest restaurants—Indigo Eurasian Cuisine, the Palomino Eurobistro and Duc’s Bistro among them—Mark’s Garage and Salon.5 are pretty much at the epicenter of Honolulu’s downtown hipster scene. Add to the mix longtime resident art purveyors Pegge Hopper, Roy Venters and Ramsay Gallery, newcomer Studio One, and a host of others, and it’s easy to see why the ongoing push to revitalize downtown has taken on the air of a small-scale artistic renaissance. Which explains why we were now sitting at harbor’s edge talking fountains.

It’s like this: Though I live only three miles to the east of downtown, I—like so many of Oahu’s 876,000-plus other residents—am basically a tourist in my own urban core. In another life, I worked downtown as a sixty-hour-per-week wage slave, but in the two years since I left that job I’ve essentially only ventured into the heart of the city when absolutely necessary—to pay the odd overdue electric bill, to plead innocent to this or that, or to get schnockered on St. Patrick’s Day. (By the way, I’m willing to wager that Murphy’s and O’Tooles, the two Irish bars that face each other across lower Nuuanu Avenue, are the two best Irish-pubs-facing-each-other-across-a-street in all of Polynesia.)

So, for the last few weeks, I’d been venturing down into Rich and Helga’s world like some sort of outsized Jane Goodall—making field trips deep into the concrete canyons, risking sharp-taloned legal eagles and thundering cross-walk stampedes. I’d disguised myself in reverse-print aloha shirt and polyester slacks, wandering the blazing noontime veldt of the downtown business district with only an Iced Venti Double-Decaf Soy Latte standing between me and heat prostration. As the evening sun sank on the horizon like a plump mango, I’d switched to the nocturnal mating camouflage of the Mid-Pacific Flocking Urban Single—polyester shirt, cargo pants and yellow-tint, wrap-around sunglasses—and burrowed into the cool depths of Indigo’s happy hour, there to sip the legendary saketini (ginger-infused sake masquerading as a martini) and join the herds grazing at the bar’s stellar—and free!—early evening buffet.


Helga and Rich at home in Salon.5.

I’d even observed the colorful preening rituals that masquerade as a downtown art opening at Salon.5. Because, on top of everything else, Rich and Helga are not only known for their commitment to fostering the work of under-exposed (some puns intended) artists—they are also resolute in their quest to throw the occasional boffo opening party. Of late, these gatherings have become notorious in certain circles for their mix of music, art, beautiful people, an odd assortment of communal wigs and occasional puzzled appearances by random passersby. (By the way, in the name of full disclosure: While it’s true that this writer was recently seen on Nu‘uanu Avenue sporting an electra-pink, Prince Valiant-cut loaner wig, it was all in the name of research. To paraphrase St. Ambrosius, "When in Rome, get down with your funky self.")

So anyway, back to Aloha Tower: Earlier in the week, I’d asked to join Rich and Helga (along with fellow artist Kim Kinard) on one of their semi-regular "city walks"—evening constitutionals through their ‘hood, meant to clear the head and stimulate creativity. We’d already covered a wide swath of the city: Through historic Chinatown, its somewhat aged face in a perpetual state of construction-induced lift; down Hotel Street and past Iolani Palace; over to the grounds of Kawaiahao Church and through the warehouse district of Kakaako; down along the waterfront and back to Aloha Tower. Along the way, each pointed out their favorite details: The hand-lettered cardboard sign announcing a Hotel Street bar. The block-long series of fountains and waterfalls fronting the First Hawaiian Bank building on King Street. The way that—if you sit in just the right spot at Kakaako Waterfront Park—the city all but disappears, with the lights on the ‘Ewa Plain and the incoming jetliners being the only reminders that Oahu’s southern shore is one of the most densely populated regions in the Pacific.

Heads cleared and feet beat, we’d decided to take in the free music at Kapono’s, watch the tug boats nose their barges here and there, and generally just chill out. Which led to the talk of water, and to the real reason Rich is an expert on Honolulu’s fountains ... and why he’s ruined so many pairs of shoes: " I should know," he said with a chuckle, "because I’ve swum in almost every one of them."

One Saturday, a few weeks after our initial, informal city walk, we all joined Frank Haines for a two-plus-hour jaunt through Honolulu’s architectural history. Over the last fifty or so years (he arrived in Hawaii in 1948), the now "mostly retired" eighty-one-year-old chairman of the board of Architects Hawaii has had a hand in creating or refurbishing some of Hawaii’s most recognizable urban landmarks. He participated in the design and construction of the Hawaii State Capitol building in 1968, for example, as well as the 1978 restoration of Aliiolani Hale—the latter a Honolulu landmark originally constructed in 1874 to house the Kingdom of Hawaii’s Royal Legislature, courts and ministries. (In recent years, Aliiolani has achieved a different kind of fame, making occasional cameo appearances on television in Hawaii Five-O and Magnum PI, as well as stunt-doubling for the palace of an African dictator in the recently released Bruce Willis action flick Tears of the Sun.)

Frank Haines at the State
Capitol he helped design. 
In his semi-retirement, Frank now serves as a volunteer docent for "Exploring Downtown," a walking tour of the city, sponsored by the Honolulu chapter of the American Institute of Architects. He’s also one of urban Honolulu’s most ardent admirers. Echoing Rich’s assessment of the city’s liquid sculptures, Frank says downtown Honolulu "compares favorably with any city this size in the world." His assessment is based in part on the large number of "pedestrian-friendly" areas in the city—that is, the open, public places where people can gather together. It also has to do with such architectural flourishes as, yes, the fountains. (As it turns out, water is a particularly popular design element among architects working in warmer climates. "They say that, though you’re not getting wet at all, psychologically it makes you feel cooler," said Haines early on in our tour, facing the waterworks at First Hawaiian Bank. I glanced at Rich; he just shrugged.)

Mostly though, Haines’ love of the city has to do with the buildings themselves—the best of which he sees as both historical records and works of fine art. For instance, he cites the Alexander & Baldwin Building, constructed in 1929, which sits on the block bordered by Bishop, Merchant and Queen Streets. At first glance, the building’s exterior seems full of anachronistic touches—small flourishes thoroughly out of place on a building situated at the top of the Polynesian Triangle. What, for instance, is the meaning of those concrete buffalo heads placed along the building’s upper reaches? Did its designers have any idea where they were?

They did.

Alexander & Baldwin Bldg.

"Alexander & Baldwin was in the sugar business," said Haines, as he pointed to the various distinctive embellishments added by the architects, "Hawaiian Regional" icons C.W. Dickey and Hart Wood. "In the old days, the cane was hauled by water buffalo. Look at the columns: That’s sugar cane represented ... all of this was done by the architect himself—Mr. Wood was a great artist as well as an architect."

Look around Honolulu through Haines’ eyes, and suddenly these touches are everywhere, the history of the Islands written in brick, concrete, steel and stone. Take, for example, the fact that so many of Honolulu’s oldest buildings are made of red brick—a substance that could not be manufactured in the Islands. "Most of the buildings downtown were originally made of wood," Haines pointed out when asked about the rationale behind using such an impractical construction material. "After a major fire in 1886, they switched to brick—which was imported on the sugar boats that would otherwise have been returning empty from the Mainland."

Kawaiahao Church
It’s like this everywhere you go with Haines. Over at Kawaiahao Church, he mentions that nearby Coral Street is rumored to have been so named because it was the path along which the one-ton coral blocks used to construct the church were hauled from the ocean—all 14,000 of them, each hand-chiseled from the reef. On Nu‘uanu Avenue, he points to the one-foot-square granite stones used to pave the sidewalk, noting that they are a remnant of Hawai‘i’s disastrous years in the sandalwood trade. The empty ships arrived using these stones for ballast, then left them behind when they departed with their holds full of the precious native wood.

Over in the huge, open-air rotunda of the State Capitol, he points out that all of the legislators’ office doors are visible from below. "During the design process, we traveled all around the United States looking at legislative buildings," he says with a mischievous grin. "Every one of them had some sort of secret back way for legislators to get to the meeting chambers—we designed this building so they always had to face the people who elected them on their way to the chambers."


Over in Saint Andrew’s cathedral, Haines took us inside to view the huge stained-glass mural which makes up the entire front wall of the edifice. Originally constructed in 1867, the cathedral has since been enlarged twice—first in 1912 and again in 1958, when the mural was added. "This piece is meant to tell the entire history of the Christian world, from the beginning of time through 1958," said Haines, a note of reverence in his voice. The images form a pictorial timeline that runs from the top left corner to the bottom right, including everything from the birth of Jesus to portraits of King Kamehameha IV and Queen Emma (who initially commissioned the cathedral’s construction). There are outlines of the Hawaiian Islands and renderings of taro plants. Haines then called us over to the point where the giant piece’s bottom right corner meets the floor. There, tucked away where few will ever see it, is the glass artist’s tongue-in-cheek rendering of Hawaii’s lowliest citizen: A termite.

Jon Brekke and Miki Lee
According to the most recent U.S. census, there are 9,154 people living in the area most readily definable as "downtown" Honolulu—that is, the blocks bounded by Richards Street to the east, River Street to the west, Vineyard Boulevard on the mountain side and Ala Moana Boulevard on the ocean side. Among these fine folk is a couple named Jon Brekke and Miki Lee, who I sought out partly because they are hip and talented downtowners (Jon is creative director of television for the local cable network, and Miki is an independent project manager), but mainly because I had been told that their apartment building has a bowling alley in the basement.

With a living room view of Punchbowl and the Koolau mountains, and walls covered with the artwork of friends, Jon and Miki’s twenty-fifth floor apartment was worth the journey in itself. One part curious condo (open the kitchen cabinets and the mountains greet you through glass walls) and nine parts artsy cool (mounted on one wall is both a pin-hole camera constructed from a coconut and a photo of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel made with it), the apartment is about as urban, and urbane, as we get in Hawaii Nei.

Alas, when we got downstairs the bowling lanes were down for maintenance, but no matter: We played ping-pong. And once they’d each, separately, trounced yet another of my Olympic dreams, we retired to a nearby Chinese restaurant to gab over sizzling scallops about the downtown highrise life—which, both agree, is remarkably good.

"We walk everywhere," said Miki. "We’re surrounded by good restaurants, good bars and a vibrant, artistic community."

But there was also something else. "Living downtown is a constant reality check," mused Jon, referring to the fact that Honolulu isn’t immune to the homelessness and other social ills that affect most cities its size. "You don’t have to look too hard to see how any one of our lives could be different with just a little bit of the wrong kind of luck."

That thought was still in mind when, having extracted the promise of a future bowling date, I said goodbye to Jon and Miki and wandered down to Hank’s Cafe. A wedge of a bar on lower Nuuanu, Hank’s in many ways serves as the missing link between urban Honolulu’s more raucous frontier days and its somewhat tamer 21st century persona. Namesake Hank Taufa‘asau’s art—portraits of Hawaiian royalty along with more modern Island scenes—is featured on the walls, and you’ll usually find Hank himself there: Delivering drinks to those unwilling (or unable) to negotiate the crowd squeezed into the narrow space, and also simply making the rounds to ensure everyone knows everyone else.

As is often the case at Hank’s, half the crowd on this night consisted of musicians, and things soon evolved into a high-spirited game of musical chairs, with instruments changing hands so often that it was soon unclear who’d actually been hired to play in the first place. Guitarist moved to drum kit, bassist went to bar stool, drummer picked up bass, and a barfly that at first glance seemed too sauced to stand was suddenly punching out a perfect tempo on the communal congas ... and on and on.

Hank's Cafe founder Hank
Taufa‘asau, with Susan
the afternoon bartender.

Somewhere late in the evening, at just the moment when I’d all but given up on making sense of anything and was contemplating my own potentially tragic debut in the rhythm section, the band went through another rotation. Suddenly, squeezed into the corner that at Hank’s passes for a stage, were representatives of virtually every ethnicity to be found in Hawaii: Samoan on bass, Maori on guitar, Hawaiian on drums ... putting the "poly" in Polynesia, as it were. Three notes in, the crowd was with them word for word: Neil Diamond’s "I Am, I Said."

It occurred to me that this band playing this song was something that could never have happened anywhere but right here. It was Honolulu’s own Downtown Sound. At last, I knew that I had truly arrived at the sweet core of the Big Pineapple.


The American Institute of Architects’ "Exploring Downtown" tour takes place on Saturdays from 9 to 11:30 a.m. The cost is $20 per adult and includes an illustrated guidebook. For reservations, call (808) 545-4242.