Our Waikīkī: What It’s Really Like for Locals Living in O‘ahu’s Iconic Community
People from all walks of life congregate in Waikīkī. Their stories reflect the community’s often colorful characteristics and depict what living local in Waikīkī means.
Jeff Apaka has spent decades living and working in Waikīkī.
PHOTO: SEAN MARRS
Jeff Apaka misses the peaceful days in Waikīkī when he would pitch a tent in his grandmother’s front yard on Kūhiō Avenue and fall asleep wrapped in a sleeping bag as the coconut trees swayed to the rhythm of the passing trades. He loved it when the trees “were doing the hula.” He reminisces about growing up in his family’s one-story home on Launiu Street—the days before Waikīkī transformed into what he calls an “asphalt jungle.”
“I can recall the beautiful homes and the beautiful hedges and the flowers,” says Apaka, 71. “I love Waikīkī dearly. It’s just that it’s different. It’s different today than it was yesterday.”
Although he spent much of his youth in Los Angeles with his “pops,” renowned singer Alfred Apaka, he has always felt rooted in Waikīkī.
It was a homecoming of sorts for the younger Apaka when he moved back to his stomping grounds at 18 and debuted at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel’s Monarch Room in the 1960s.
He now lives on the 23rd floor of a condominium overlooking Kūhiō Avenue. His grandmother’s home is no longer there—it was replaced by a parking garage.
For nearly three decades, Apaka has worked at the Waikīkī Community Center, across the street from what was once Queen Lili‘uokalani’s estate. The queen had adopted Apaka’s great-grand aunt, Lydia Aholo, whom he affectionately called Auntie Tūtū, as a child.
Apaka, in some ways, embodies the spirit of Waikīkī—a mixture of local and Mainland influences that work together to create a vibrant, ever-changing community.
Tourists from across the world—an average of 82,500 per day—flock to Waikīkī’s sandy shores and beachfront hotels. And Waikīkī generates up to 64,300 jobs and is home to 1,600 businesses.
Beyond the tourism hub, nearly 27,000 people call the Waikīkī metropolitan area home. They live in the high-rise condos and apartments lining many of the side streets that feed into crowded Kalākaua and Kūhiō avenues, giving many of them a bird’s-eye view of their community.
From hordes of tourists eagerly snapping selfies at the Duke Kahanamoku statue, to locals playing chess and checkers at night in the pavilions near the beach, to surfers patiently waiting to catch waves, people from all walks of life congregate in Waikīkī, whether it be for a few days or a few decades. Their stories reflect the neighborhood’s often colorful characteristics and depict what living local in Waikīkī means.
“If you think about [the meaning of Waikīkī’s] name—spouting water—all of these people who are coming are spouting. They’re bringing Waikīkī to life,” says Aka Kanahelehele, a 12-year Waikīkī resident who volunteers at Jefferson Elementary School. Before he met his wife in 1998, he lived in the bushes near the former Outrigger Reef’s Shore Bird restaurant while working at McDonald’s on Kālia Road. “If you think about all these buildings and the tourism in Waikīkī, to me that is in honor of our last king, Kalākaua. He was the only monarch … to travel and entice people or encourage people to come and meet his people.”
Jefferson Elementary has been “spouting water” for 85 years. Like a time capsule, the school has stood the test of time while its surroundings have drastically changed. It represents the new and old of Waikīkī and how all of these different, and sometimes contradictory, parts make a whole.
Students come from at least 23 countries, including Japan, China, South Korea, Vietnam, the Czech Republic, Russia, Micronesia and India, with about 32 percent classified as English Language Learners, which means they spoke another language first. The 400-student school is so diverse that Kapi‘olani Community College students attend their English language teaching classes there.
The nearby condominiums tower over the school’s 15-acre patch of green space near the Honolulu Zoo—the tallest building on campus is the two-story administration office.
Residents from the surrounding condos flock to the school to help with gardening—a pastime that those living outside of urban Honolulu sometimes take for granted. Parents and residents are allowed to take home cucumber, squash, avocado, pepper, papaya, banana and Kona coffee, some of which are fertilized with dried elephant dung from the zoo. Principal Garret Zakahi has a “pluck but don’t pull” policy.
— Garret Zakahi, Jefferson Elementary principal
“When I see high-rises, I see an opportunity,” says Zakahi, who has been at the helm of the school for four years. “And that is an opportunity for them to garden. And that’s exactly what they do.”
From watering plants to raking and pruning, Kanahelehele, 39, spends about 10 hours a day, several times a week, volunteering at Jefferson. He usually starts his day at 4 a.m. and leaves the school by 6 p.m. He and his partner, Lakona Rodriguez—his “other half”—also run the school’s hula program and organize its “extravagant” May Day program, as Zakahi describes it, which celebrates Jefferson’s diversity. This is why Zakahi has dubbed Kanahelehele, a Ni‘ihau native who worked as a cultural practitioner at the Hyatt Regency Waikīkī, and Rodriguez Volunteer No. 1 and No. 2.
“I would like Jefferson Elementary to be a hub of the Waikīkī community, a place where parents, students, community members can come with the focus on student learning,” Zakahi says. “It’s a hidden gem. It’s important to honor each student’s culture. That’s who we are. That’s what we stand for.”
Hula classes are held three times a week with no long breaks during summer or winter vacation. On Saturdays, parents bring their children to Kūhiō Beach, where class starts promptly at 7 a.m. Climbing coconut trees and running on the beach while carrying stones, for added weight, are just a couple of the activities on the agenda.
The program is so popular that some students from outside of the district apply for waivers to get into the school just to enroll in the hula program.
Kanahelehele’s daughter, who attended Jefferson from third to fifth grade, is now a seventh-grader at Washington Middle School, but he says he is committed to continue volunteering at the school.
“What they have given to me is respect in the biggest form,” he says. “My daughter may have not been the smartest kid in school … but the teachers stuck with her. They never gave up.”
Aka Kanahelehele volunteers several times a week at Jefferson Elementary.
While Waikīkī evokes a certain nostalgia for many locals and tourists, the area isn’t immune to conflict.
Bob Finley, a 40-year Waikīkī resident, fields residents’ complaints—on the phone, in person and in meetings—on a weekly basis, a responsibility he has taken on for 15 years as the chair of the neighborhood board.
“If you go back to the 1970s, you’ll find that minutes of the neighborhood board reflect that concerns in Waikīkī were homeless, noise, drug dealing,” says Finley, who lives in a condo on Aloha Drive. “And we haven’t solved any of those things.”
In 2016, Honolulu police logged 3,068 offenses in the Waikīkī district, the majority of them thefts.
But Honolulu Police Maj. Roy Sugimoto, who oversees the Waikīkī district, says homelessness remains the No. 1 complaint. Officers respond to calls every week but sometimes can’t issue warnings or citations because the people involved may not technically be committing crimes, he says. Sitting on a beach or at a park during regular hours, for example, is not illegal.
In all of East Honolulu, which includes Waikīkī, the state’s point-in-time count estimated 300 unsheltered homeless people last year, a decrease from the 2016 count of 435. About 12 percent of those in the Waikīkī metropolitan area live below the poverty level. The median value of a home totaled nearly $476,000, according to the census.
Jason Espero, Waikīkī Health’s director of homeless services, says the region’s homeless population typically falls into three categories: those from the Mainland, local residents who prefer Waikīkī and youths living on the streets.
“The homeless are very similar to how we are in the sense of their preference where they want to live. If there’s a homeless [person] who’s comfortable and familiar with a certain area like Waikīkī, that’s where they’re going to prefer to live and stay,” says Espero, who has served as homeless director since 2016. “If they’re asked to leave or go into a shelter, sometimes it can be tough to convince them because they’re so familiar with Waikīkī.”
Waikīkī Health operates a shelter in Kaka‘ako and four health clinics in urban Honolulu, which served more than 10,500 patients in 2015, 42 percent of whom were living below the poverty level. Nearly 20 percent of the patients were homeless and 22 percent were uninsured. The nonprofit’s ‘Ōhua Avenue clinic in Waikīkī is typically the busiest; the most common treatments are for wounds and the common cold, Espero says.
In 2014 the city made it illegal to sit and lie on public sidewalks in Waikīkī, with the stated goal to improve public safety and ensure accessibility for pedestrians. Between September 2014, when HPD began enforcing the law, and late November 2017, officers issued about 3,000 warnings and 950 citations, and made 12 arrests.
Sugimoto says the homeless population seems to fluctuate based on sweeps in other areas, with some homeless people migrating to Waikīkī when they are swept out of nearby communities.
Instead of reducing homelessness, the sit-lie law led people to other parts of urban Honolulu or less visible areas in Waikīkī, Espero says.
More recently, three violent crimes in two months—including two murders—rocked the community. All three suspects were teens.
Sugimoto of HPD said the high-profile crimes “looked very isolated. There were no trends. It was an unfortunate storm of events.”
Honolulu police received 55 juvenile nuisance and delinquency calls in 2016 and about 30 last year, as of late November 2017, he says.
Kent Anderson, who oversees Waikīkī Health’s youth drop-in center, says it’s unfair to blame crime on homeless youth. He says homeless youth are targeted on the streets and are far more likely to be victims of violent crimes than perpetrators. Many of the homeless and at-risk teens that Youth Outreach serves have suffered from physical, sexual and emotional abuse at home, been bullied or lack healthy support systems.
“I’m not trying to say that our kids are perfect. Our kids are dealing with a lot of stress and trauma and sometimes anger issues with abandonment,” Anderson says. “That’s different from these crimes."
Youth Outreach, known as YO, is based on Keoniana Street in Waikīkī, and provides medical and social services, such as immunizations, counseling, and housing and job assistance to homeless and at-risk youths and young adults ages 14 to 21. Over the past five years, YO has served about 700 to 800 youths annually, at least half of whom are homeless, Anderson says.
Homeless youths are often transient and many of them work and yearn for better lives, Anderson says. Attracted by Waikīkī’s energy and lifestyle, many find that hype fades quickly.
“When I was a teenager I was still figuring things out. Now imagine you’re a teenager still figuring things out and you’re on the streets without a healthy support network,” Anderson says. “They’re on the streets because the streets are actually a safer place for them than their own home is. It’s not a fun life.”
Despite the community’s challenges, Aka Kanahelehele will always find Waikīkī special. He has seen it all—from living on the streets, to losing his wife to cancer, to building a new future with his daughter and Rodriguez. He lives with the nostalgia of what was and the hope for what will come. Even though he may eventually move out of Waikīkī, he says he plans to keep coming back, particularly to Jefferson Elementary, “forever, until the last breath of my life.”
By the Numbers
A.D. 600: Early Hawaiians settle in this area, transforming the marsh into hundreds of taro fields, fishponds and gardens.
1854: St. Augustine by-the-Sea Catholic Church is established.
1870s: Taro production dramatically declines, supplanted with rice.
1877: The 300-acre Kapi‘olani Park is dedicated as a public park to Queen Kapi‘olani.
1901: The Moana Hotel, known as the First Lady of Waikīkī, opens, establishing Waikīkī as a resort destination.
1904: The Honolulu Aquarium—now the Waikīkī Aquarium—opens with 35 tanks and 400 marine organisms. It’s the second-oldest public aquarium in the U.S.
1904: Chinese merchant Chun Afong sells his 3 acres of beachfront land to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for $28,000. The area is now Fort DeRussy.
1927: The Waikīkī Natatorium War Memorial is completed, with a 100-by-40-meter saltwater swimming pool as a memorial to honor those who served in World War I.
1928: The Ala Wai Canal is completed. Work started in 1922.
1933: Jefferson Elementary School opens.
1935: Harry Owens and Webley Edwards inaugurate the famed radio program, “Hawai‘i Calls,” broadcasting from the Moana. It runs for 40 years. At its peak in 1952, the weekly program is broadcast on 750 stations worldwide.
1936: The Waikīkī Theatre opens on Kalākaua Avenue. The first movie shown is Under Two Flags.
1946: Kūhiō Theater opens. It is renovated in the ’80s to include a second screen and renamed the Kūhiō Twin Theater, then demolished in 1996.
1947: The city approves a master plan for Kapi‘olani Park, designating 42 acres for the Honolulu Zoo.
1957: The International Market Place opens on Kalākaua Avenue.
2000: Mayor Jeremy Harris launches a multimillion-dollar revitalization of Waikīkī.
2005: Waikīkī 3, which opened as Waikīkī Theatre in 1936, is demolished. Waikīkī 1 and 2, right around the corner, close, too.
2014: Mayor Kirk Caldwell signs the Waikīkī sit-lie bill into law, the first of its kind on O‘ahu. The ordinance bans people from sitting and lying on public sidewalks in Waikīkī to address the area’s homeless population.
2016: The newly renovated International Market Place opens.