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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, October 24, 2004

Pay a visit to Kaimuki

 •  Lots to do in Kaimuki
 •  Small businesses playing large role in Kaimuki

By Chris Oliver
Advertiser Travel Writer

Saturday evening at Coffee Talk, on Wai'alae Avenue, and the place is wired.

Liz Schwartz, owner of Coffee Talk in Kaimuki, wants the shop to be a safe place for teens to socialize without alcohol or drugs.

Rebecca Breyer • The Honolulu Advertiser

Cables, amplifiers, microphones, lights and bodies crowd the small performance space where punk band Sleep Jet Landing launches enthusiastically into its allotted 30-minute slot.

Despite some keyed-up band members and fans, inside and on the street, the coffee house is mellow; teens come and go, friends stop in, an occasional parent wanders by. The event, aimed at those too young for the club scene but who definitely need a place to go, swings into gear. On other evenings, music might range from hip-hop and reggae to more eclectic styles such as an evening of Spanish guitar or Asian music.

"What we provide is a safe and respectful environment for all-age teens," said Coffee Talk owner Liz Schwartz, who with Unity Crayons hosts "emerging band" events regularly at the coffee shop. (Four or five new bands per night, usually high school students, get 30 minutes of floor time.) By 11 p.m., it's all over.

"As a community, it's really important to have a space for teens to come and hear their music where there is no alcohol or drugs, where they can meet friends and just socialize," Schwartz said.

Susan Sanger, above, is a co-owner of Pzazz, a designer consignment store on Wai'alae Avenue. Customers can make a reservation to have a gourmet lunch there.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

Patrons of the Movie Museum in Kaimuki sit in reclining chairs and watch classic flicks like "The Desert Rats."

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

I had come to Kaimuki as a tourist — to see what it had to offer for those who don't live there, and to see why those who do live there seem to love it so much. I found that community is a word that's heard a lot around Wai'alae Avenue, a mile-long thoroughfare in a 100-year-old neighborhood that contains just about everything a neighborhood needs ... and lots of extras: spa and health salons, its own 3-car taxi service, one-of-a-kind boutiques, art galleries, old and new patisseries, many and diverse restaurants, an unusual movie theatre and until last month, its own trolley service bringing visitors from Waikiki to shop and dine.

"Kaimuki is about the closest thing Honolulu has to a campus neighborhood," said Bennett Hymer of Mutual Publishing, on Center Street. "It's easy to walk around, it's clean and interesting, and there is a rustic charm to the community that we don't really want discovered."

Well, too late.

Kaimuki's revitalization program to restore and promote one of Honolulu's last remaining "old-style" neighborhoods is well under way.

Ginny Meade, executive director of the Greater East Honolulu Community Alliance, heads a volunteer organization that in Meade's words, "exists to improve the quality of life in every way that works for the community."

"In Kaimuki we had a real opportunity because of the mix of old-time businesses, small businesses, lots of history and great stories from and about residents going back several generations." Meade said.

In 1997, Meade got involved in a proposal asking the U.S. Housing and Urban Development for $10 million a year for 10 years to revitalize East Honolulu neighborhoods. The alliance didn't get the award, but in the process, communities came together to talk ideas. In Kaimuki, several projects got under way.

Today, some seedier clubs have disappeared. There are wider, shadier sidewalks, more trees and landscaping and improved storefronts. Foot traffic has increased.

Maile Reeves and Kanani Dias pass the Happy Days restaurant on Wai'alae Avenue between 11th Avenue and Koko Head Avenue. The dim-sum restaurant has become a staple of Kaimuki.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

Meade said an ongoing challenge is to get the building owners involved. "We're aiming for 'smart growth' and a pedestrian-friendly area," she said "... not high-rises."

Smart growth off the avenue, too. Meade, who's lived on 20th Avenue for 18 years, says that as houses sell some are slowly being developed into bigger properties, but an ongoing effort to preserve some of the original homes is much in evidence. "Many of my neighbors are second- and third-generation; they're interested and involved, they attend neighborhood board meetings, they know and look after their neighbors, exchange backyard bananas; it's a community very willing to talk to each other," Meade said.

Pel and Nick Kaiser moved with their two sons from Manoa to Kaimuki six years ago.

"We love it," Kaiser said. "Funky shops, great restaurants and a very friendly neighborhood. We have two teenage boys now at Kapi'olani Community College, which is nearby. When we moved here, they were at an age when they loved comic books and spent a lot of time in Geckos. We often eat at Happy Days restaurant, which is fantastic for dim sum and the service is great." Both she and Nick like the Goodwill store for bargain hunting. "We just love it here," Kaiser said, "... you can get everything you need."

Will the Kaimuki trolley ever come back?

"I'd like to see it rise again, like the phoenix from the ashes," laughed Ginny Meade. "We had 25,000 people a month riding that trolley, including students from the University of Hawai'i and Chaminade and even elementary schools. College students are vibrant and bring a lot of color and energy into the neighborhood. We'll certainly pursue it."

"What else would I like to see happen in Kaimuki? Restoration of the old Queen Theatre on Wai'alae Avenue ... Definitely, whatever it takes."

• • •

Lots to do in Kaimuki

Get the view: Behind the Kaimuki fire station, a steep but easy climb in athletic shoes will get you to a spot where an old observatory was built to view Halley's Comet in 1910. The observatory is long gone, but the view across Kaimuki to Honolulu is worth the climb. The trail is on the diamondhead side of Koko Head Avenue, just makai of the intersection with Pahoa Avenue.

• Catch a movie: Get into horror this week at the Movie Museum on Harding Avenue. Beginning Thursday (full moon), Halloween movies will include: "Brides of Dracula," "Ed Wood," "Scream of Fear," "Big Fish" and "A Warning to the Curious," an M.R. James ghost story. Information: 735-8771.

Shop: Kaimuki, within a few blocks, has a wide range of small and delightful shops and galleries selling clothes fashioned from kimono, Hawaiian quilts and bowls, body-building machines, fine art and ceramics, beads and what some swear are the best custard pies and pastries on the island. You'll find secondhand comics and musical instruments as well as designer fashions at consignment prices.

Eat, eat, eat: Named a culinary mecca in Fodor's travel guide, the Kaimuki community has an enviable choice of places to eat and drink coffee. Happy Days Restaurant's dim sum, C & C Pasta Co., Hale Vietnam, Cafe Laufer, 12th Ave. Grill, Big City Diner, 3660 On The Rise are just a few of the recommended choices.

 Picnic: At the top of St. Louis Drive is the Wa'ahila Ridge State Recreation Area with cooler temperatures, a fragrant pine forest, picnic tables and the chance to enjoy peace and birdsong. Family trails and the more advanced Wa'ahila Ridge Trail begin here.

• Hear music: Check out Coffee Talk for local punk and reggae bands' all-ages events.