Bill may curb Waikiki street performers
By Robbie Dingeman
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Robbie Dingeman
Street performers would have to clear out of four busy blocks of Waikiki for three hours each night under a proposal that has gained early approval from members of the City Council, who say they're worried about pedestrian safety on the crowded sidewalks.
City Councilman Charles Djou, an attorney who represents Waikiki, said he is motivated by a study by University of Hawa'i professor Karl Kim that shows the sidewalk musicians, mimes and performers are "degrading the level of service for pedestrians" by taking up room on the busy sidewalks and forcing pedestrians to walk in the street.
But the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawai'i opposes the bill and describes it as a pattern of limiting First Amendment freedom and activities along with another proposal to limit the number of parades in Waikiki.
"The city is embarking on a dangerous crusade to limit one of the most fundamental constitutional rights — freedom of speech and expression," ACLU legal director Lois Perrin said.
But Djou said that's not what he's after.
"I'm not going after street performers," he said. "They do add to the color and character of Waikiki."
Felix Wesley appears several nights a week with his clothes and face painted as a silver cowboy. He doesn't see the logic in banning sidewalk entertainers in the four-block chunk of Kalakaua.
"If people didn't want us, then we wouldn't be out here," said Wesley, a former Marine and a recent college graduate who added that he also works as a jazz musician and in other entertainment-related jobs.
On a rainy Wednesday evening last week, Wesley silently performed for visitors, posing for numerous photos, shaking hands and even stepping out of his wordless mode to give directions to lost tourists.
Wesley said he has been working as a street performer for six years and makes enough in tips that he'd like to keep doing it. He noted that Honolulu police, who support the limits, did not have statistics to indicate a number of accidents and injuries that could be blamed on street performers.
"Everyone knows we have a right to be out here," Wesley said.
SAFETY OR CENSORSHIP?
But merchants and government officials also see that the performers tend to be a loosely connected group of individuals unlikely to lobby as effectively as the businesses that pay higher rents in Waikiki. And some have little use for the street performers who take up sidewalk space.
Reg White, vice president of operations for Paradise Cruise Ltd., testified in favor of the limits. He said that he and others in the tourism industry worry about the city's ambiance and think restricting the street performers would help.
"To be panhandled at every step like a carnival sideshow does not set a tone of aloha for the area," White said. "To be crowded off the sidewalk by sideshows so that I cannot safely go along the main thoroughfare in the evening hours does not make visitors want to subject themselves and their families to repeat ventures in Hawai'i."
The Waikiki Business Improvement District hired Kim, of the Department of Urban & Regional Planning, to map a four-block stretch of Kalakaua Avenue, measure pedestrian value and estimate the impact of street performers on pedestrians.
Djou said he was opposed to an earlier, more strict council effort to restrict street performers that was thrown out by the courts. But he's convinced by the Kim study.
Kim concluded that street performers reduce the area available for walking.
Kim wrote: "As the congestion increases, pedestrians were observed stepping into the street to walk around obstacles, increasing traffic conflicts. As the competition for limited sidewalk space increases, there is likely to be more accidents waiting to happen."
Mayor Mufi Hannemann notes that the council has tried to ban the performers in parts of Waikiki before and failed. Hannemann aide Bill Brennan said the mayor would prefer to designate certain areas in Waikiki where they'd be allowed rather than banning them from certain places at certain times.
Brennan said Hannemann is concerned about pedestrian safety but doesn't believe that "we can or necessarily should" get rid of street performers to help address that issue.
And street performer Wesley and others who work in Waikiki point out the large number of pedestrians who routinely ignore basic traffic safety: crossing against the lights, jaywalking and even strolling in the street for no apparent reason.
The ACLU's Perrin said the bill seems to be more closely aimed at helping Waikiki attract "less tourists with more money."
Street performers get targeted, Perrin said, because they can be accused of attracting "the wrong crowd" over more affluent and free-spending tourists.
Djou said he thinks the limits will help the pedestrian safety issues but stop short of trampling the rights of the performers throughout the rest of Waikiki's 80 blocks.
"I do think it is a definite positive step that's needed in Waikiki," he said, because it is narrowly focused and does not attempt to differentiate between the performers.
CROWDED BUT COLORFUL
Some folks who work in Waikiki said they occasionally see more of a sidewalk congestion problem prompted by the bigger musical groups.
Pei Shin, a manager for the Pearl Factory in the International Market Place, looks out on the street performers nightly from his job. He said the musical groups draw more of a distracting crowd than the individual performers.
He's seen nights when the drummers get surrounded by dancers and an audience and block the sidewalk.
But he said performers such as Wesley add to the flavor of Waikiki and that tourists like them. "Without them, I think it will be real dead," he said.
For Fresno resident Maggie Stebbins — who was visiting Waikiki last week with her family — Wesley and the other street performers offer a slice of life that's different from what's available in her hometown.
"I think it's really cool," Stebbins said. "I don't get to see things like that where people take the time to dress up all in silver."
Reach Robbie Dingeman at firstname.lastname@example.org.