'He was way ahead of our time'
By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Staff Writer
Pamela Napoleon has Frank Fasi to thank for her ride into town every morning from Mākaha Valley, and she knows it. When she heard yesterday about his death, her thoughts instantly went to the city bus system he created.
"He did a lot for the people," said Napoleon, 51, as she waited for her bus home at the Alapa'i Street transit center.
Her "bus buddy," 54-year-old John Sotelo, agreed, nodding as he fondly recalled how Fasi would flash shakas everywhere he went.
"He did good for the people," Sotelo said. "He did good for everyone."
Across O'ahu yesterday, many remembered Fasi's 22 years as mayor and the indelible mark he left on Honolulu by recollecting the slew of projects — many now core city functions — he championed for the "little guy."
Along with the city bus system, Fasi can be thanked for satellite city halls, the H-Power plant and neighborhood boards. He was behind Honolulu City Lights, Summer Fun and community gardens. He pushed forward the revitalization of Chinatown and kickstarted new affordable housing projects. And he helped create a green expanse at the Civic Center that now bears his name in an episode that demonstrated his cowboy style of governance, when he mounted a bulldozer himself to tear up a council members' parking lot behind City Hall.
"He was just constantly looking for new programs, new projects, new things he could do to make Honolulu a better city," said Jim Loomis, Fasi's director of information and complaint from 1971 to 1979. "In many ways, the fact that Honolulu is now recognized as a major city has to do with Frank and many of the things that he wanted."
Many agreed that the bus system was one of Fasi's most successful projects. Fasi formed plans for the city-run bus operation in 1970, when drivers of the private Honolulu Rapid Transit Co. went on strike. He quickly got $10.4 million in federal funding for the project and flew off to Dallas to purchase used buses.
Loomis said he remembers well the day the ship carrying the buses pulled into port in Honolulu.
The first bus was unloaded, he said, and Fasi "got in ... and drove figure eights around the parking lot."
The bus system went on to serve tens of millions of riders annually and be recognized as one of the best in the nation.
Joe Magaldi, a former head of the city Department of Transportation Services under Fasi, said the city bus system was about offering commuters a viable choice for getting to work and school that wouldn't cost them much.
'FOR THE LITTLE GUY'
Fasi also championed a rail-transit system, but that plan was blocked twice by the City Council.
"He was way ahead of our time," Magaldi said.
Former Fasi aide Carol Costa said the politician was all about making life easier for the little guy.
In every campaign dating back to his service in the Hawai'i Territorial Senate (1958-59); the Honolulu City Council (1965-68); and as Honolulu mayor (1969-80, 1985-94), Fasi repeated this mantra: "I fight for the little guy."
Costa said that Fasi "always had his eye on providing the services that would help the people the most."
That was the impetus behind the popular Summer Fun program for students, and the city's open markets, aimed at getting low-cost produce to residents.
"No mayor will ever be as productive as Frank Fasi," Costa said. "He was an action mayor."
Some of that action was centered on particular communities.
Ongoing revitalization efforts in Chinatown, for example, have their roots in initiatives spearheaded by the former mayor, who in the 1970s recognized that the community had potential as a cultural center and arts district.
Fasi also believed more people needed to live in Chinatown if the city ever wanted to tackle its crime problems. So he helped Chinatown gain designation as a historic district.
And he kickstarted projects to build city-owned affordable housing in the community.
"A good part of the housing down here ... (went up) during his terms as mayor or were started when he was mayor," said Downtown Neighborhood Board member Lynne Matusow. "That's all housing that might not have been built."
Chu Lan Shubert-Kwock, president of the Chinatown Business & Community Association, said Fasi also focused on crime. For example, Fasi banned traffic, except for city buses and emergency vehicles, on Hotel Street in an effort to curtail prostitution.
"I think he was the first mayor who really did a lot in Chinatown," she said.
WORK IN WAIKĪKĪ
Others pointed out that Fasi's impact wasn't just about what he helped create, but what he helped stop.
Early in his mayoral career, he evicted the popular Queen's Surf nightclub and the world-famous Kodak Hula Show from their beachfront sites in Waikīkī, arguing the beach belonged to the public, not to commercial interests.
Waikīkī Neighborhood Board chairman Bob Finley said he'll never forget how Fasi dealt with a burgeoning street T-shirt problem in Waikīkī, an issue that had been a major source of complaints by residents. One night, Fasi got city crews to move in and set up concrete planters on the sidewalk, leaving no space for the vendors.
Finley said residents were grateful that Fasi took matters into his own hands.
"Whether you liked Frank Fasi or not," Finley said, "you always knew where he was coming from."