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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, February 7, 2002

True test of rehabilitation yet to come for redone 'A'ala Park

By James Gonser
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer

'A'ala Park on the edge of Chinatown has for years been known as a site for people living on the edge. After a major face-lift, the park today teeters at a critical point between its checkered past and its possible future.

After a $2.7 million face-lift, the once-seedy 'A'ala Park has begun to attract families and strollers. Police are stepping up vigilance to keep the open space from being taken over by drug users and sellers.

Cory Lum • The Honolulu Advertiser

The park has been a haven for homeless people and drug dealers for decades, but the Weed & Seed crime-fighting program and a two-year closure for repair work moved out loiterers and cleared the way for the community to reclaim the area.

'A'ala Park reopened without fanfare Jan. 30 after a $2.7 million face-lift. But the improvements may have been the easy part. The challenge now is to make the transformation permanent by bringing back residents who once feared venturing into the park.

"It has been so dominated by the homeless for such a long time that people will have to rediscover that the park is an active recreation space for families," said city Managing Director Ben Lee. "It's one of the major open park spaces in downtown Honolulu. It has a growing residential population and a lot of new housing projects going in. They need it."

"'A'ala" means "fragrant," and visitors walking through the open baseball field today smell fresh-cut grass rather than the urine, overripe bathrooms and unwashed bodies of years past.

The bathrooms have been rebuilt, the walkways are trimmed and clean, the sprinkler system and drinking fountains work and the grass is green. A skate park is still under construction and will open in about a month.

But as important as the improvements are, it's what's missing that is more significant. Gone are groups of men gathered in corners and sitting along the walls selling drugs. A closer look will reveal such people nearby, along River and Hotel streets, but not in the park.

Lee said the problem is keeping them out. To that end, the city is increasing its police presence, moving out free food programs, closing the park at night and encouraging youth programs.

Park bathrooms will be locked and the park will close at 7 p.m., reopening at 6 a.m. No one will be allowed to sleep overnight in the park, Lee said. The hours may be extended next summer after lights are added to the baseball field.

Dozens of drug dealers and users were arrested during sweeps of the park in 1999 as part of the federal Weed & Seed designation of the area encompassing Downtown, Chinatown, 'A'ala Park and Kalihi-Palama. Sponsored by the U.S. Justice Department, Weed & Seed is a joint law-enforcement effort among federal, state and city authorities to reclaim dangerous neighborhoods by working to prevent crime.

Families already are starting to return to the park. A few mothers watched as their children jumped on the new playground equipment yesterday, and elderly couples walked through, stopping to rest on the new benches. Randy Whitt, 23, shot some baskets on the new court.

John Leonui of Honolulu sips coffee near Delores Blair in the renovated 'A'ala Park, which is being closely watched by police.

Cory Lum • The Honolulu Advertiser

"I'm hoping the city tries their darndest to keep the family environment that is in the park now," said Witt, who lives in the Marin Tower overlooking the park.

But John Leslie, minister for the Ohana Family of the Living God Church in Hau'ula warned that the city cannot ignore the needs of the poor and homeless in the area. Leslie's group serves free lunches at the end of the park three days a week.

"We are feeding the poor, homeless and needy," Leslie said. "Many of them live here too. If not for us, they wouldn't eat."

Leslie said he has provided meals for about two years, and thinks the new park and free meals could co-exist.

Jody and Joey are a couple who live in their car and depend on free meals to get by.

"Jobs get slow, and that's why people come here," Jody said. "If not for this, I don't know what we'd do. We are regular people. We don't want to go to (Institute for Human Services) or places where you have to have ID or attend a church service to get a meal. Here they don't ask questions, they just give you a meal."

Lee said moving the group out is critical to changing the image of the park, and he has been talking with the church about moving to the nearby Beretania Community Center, about a block away at 'A'ala and North Kukui streets.

District 1's police commander, Maj. Michael Tucker, said the beat officers are watching the park closely, though no arrests have been made since it reopened.