Afterthoughts: Moving On

Chinatown’s losing more than just cheesecake.

illustration:  matthew kawika ortiz

I ran into a familiar face recently, looking happier than I’ve seen him in a while.

Regular readers may remember the May 2012 Afterthoughts column in which I wrote about local cheesecake maker Otto’s fight against the drug dealers who were operating openly right outside his shop on Smith Street in Chinatown. At that point, the harassment had gotten so bad, he had resorted to drawing a huge “HELP” sign on the front window of Otto Cake, and locking his doors even during business hours.

Still, Otto pledged to stand his ground and fight. “We can’t let the dealers win,” he told me then.

He was hoping that the police would step in to bust the dealers, and that the community would rally around him to keep the streets clean.

No such luck. A little more than a year later, the scrappy baker packed up his cake pans and headed east, setting up shop on 12th Avenue, up the street from Coffee Talk.

One way to look at this is to say the dealers won. Nothing has replaced Otto’s business in that space, or the adjacent one that used to be a charming little vintage boutique. They’re just empty now, no one left to get in the way of the drug trade on the block.

On the other hand, you could also say that Otto won. He’s been baking at his new spot at the top of the hill since July, and says things are worlds better now—no crime, no threats, and much more customer foot traffic. Kaimukī is a functional neighborhood in a way that Chinatown just isn’t. I’m happy for him, and happy that Kaimuki gets easy access to the island’s best cheesecake.

The real loser here is Chinatown itself, and the remaining business owners and residents who seem increasingly doomed to sketchville, as more stakeholders throw in the towel, and the police continue to fritter away their days nailing jaywalkers, while ignoring the larger patterns of crime in the area.

This stuff matters, because it’s things like this that shape the reputation of a neighborhood. Otto told me he now gets comments on a daily basis from customers who say they’re so glad he moved, because they would never set foot in Chinatown. “Some of these are family types, with kids, but some of them are just young people with tattoos,” he says. “And they just don’t see it as being worth the risk.”

It’s frustrating, because there actually is good stuff happening in Chinatown: bars serving artisanal cocktails, innovative new restaurants, bike rentals, quality boutiques, a healthy art scene. But unless something changes dramatically, regular people are going to keep avoiding the neighborhood, and the energy of revitalization is going to fizzle out once again. And if business owners like Otto can’t find a safe home in the neighborhood, the reputation doesn’t have much chance of getting fixed.

There’s been talk lately of marketing Chinatown to tourists, touting the district in the same way that other cities do, as must-see destinations. San Francisco is proud of its Chinatown—why can’t we be? Of course, when these conversations come up, even the neighborhood’s strongest proponents feel the need to apologize for its poor condition. (In a Star-Advertiser story a few months ago, Michael Packard, a tour guide who leads visitors on Segway tours through Chinatown, said that tourists love the neighborhood once they find it, but had to admit that the homeless presence and the stench of urine made Hotel Street “a little rough.”)

If Chinatown is to thrive, it’s going to take more than just the heroic efforts of a few individuals. Otto’s battle certainly inspired me, but we shouldn’t have to rely on him, and others like him, to single-handedly defeat crime. He’s doing quite enough to make the city a better place, just by baking cheesecakes.