First Friday Chaos in Chinatown

Party Foul: Celebration of the arts, or party overload—has First Friday become a monster?

illustration: valentino valdez

Honolulu’s First Friday phenomenon began in 2003, at first just a few downtown art galleries networking with customers. Since then, it’s snowballed into a monthly, drunken gala that fills the streets, reroutes traffic and annoys area residents trying to go about their lives. It’s an economic savior to some, a monthly headache to others.

“First Friday has run off in a direction that even the people that started it didn’t intend,” says Steve Lohse, who heads the Chinatown Gateway Plaza Tenant Association and fields all kinds of noise complaints during First Friday and other large events.

It’s not just First Friday; the district has turned into Honolulu’s premier block-party location. Cinco de Mayo, Mardi Gras, St. Patrick’s Day, Halloween and Chinese New Year all pack the streets to capacity. “We’re having too many non-construction-related street closures down here,” says Lynne Matusow of the Downtown Neighborhood Board. The downtown area currently has 31 scheduled street closures in 2012 for various events, roughly one every twelve days.

One problem is that there’s no one specifically in charge of events in the district. The Arts District Merchant’s Association (ADMA), a group of area business owners, has taken the helm for now. “Nobody else is really stepping up to the plate to provide solutions,” says James “J.J.” Niebhur, president of ADMA and the co-owner of J.J. Dolan’s.

Members of ADMA contribute to a First Friday Community Safety Fund, which pays for special-duty police officers, portable toilets and street closure signage. They also acquire the street closure permits from the City’s Department of Transportation Services (DTS), which gladly obliges. “First Friday has gotten to such a scope of size and activity, if we don’t close down the streets, it’s a safety issue,” says DTS director Wayne Yoshioka.

Yoshioka says that DTS is working with the community and the Downtown Neighborhood Board to come up with solutions, like limiting the number of events and requiring better communications between event promoters and the community.

Phong Tran, owner of the Arts Treasures Gallery, has been a merchant in the district for 25 years. In that time, he’s had drunken customers break his merchandise without paying for it. He’s witnessed fights in front of his business that resulted in him cleaning up blood. Still, Tran supports First Friday and boost it brings to local bottom lines. His solution to keeping everything under control? “Limit the alcohol.”