By Susan Halas
As a Wailuku resident for more than 30 years and a property owner for going on 15, I’m always surprised how much I like the area and continuously dismayed that such a charming town is treated as such a step-child by local officials for decades on end.
Wailuku has the nicest people, the best weather, the most creative zoning and a wide variety of bold face name citizens all crammed into a small area. Within a few square blocks you’ll find bold face names like property developer Everett Dowling, attorney Phil Lowenthal, pawn shop mavin Richard Dan, Patrick Wong (currently the corporation counsel for the county of Maui) and his wife Cynthia, a law partner with James Krueger. And speaking of Krueger, the waiting room of this formidable attorney is papered with checks of awards he’s won for his clients.
There’s also Jon Starr, who owns a wide swath of Main Street, and his wife Helen Nielsen, the Maui rep for U.S. Senator Brian Schatz. Also in the high powered Mr. & Mrs. Category are Terisita and John Noble. She runs Noble Travel, he’s an artist and critic of the present regime. Then there’s consummate political insider Anthony Takitani (one of his partners is State Senator Gil Keith-Agaran) and Saedene Ota, an award-winning graphic designer, owner of Maui Thing and until recently the Maui appointee to the UH Board of Regents. Add to these a long list of lawyers, doctors, accountants, bankers, judiciary employees as well hundreds if not thousands of state and county workers, including the island’s most famous and vigilant traffic enforcement officer Keith Taguma of the Maui Police Department.
Yet all the public plans to revitalize Wailuku, and all the money spent in that pursuit, has yet to result in significant material improvements. Au contraire, the most notable accomplishment of the city fathers seems to be their ability to ignore seemingly forever the deteriorating pavement of the public lot, and similar pervasive decay. Though their talking points endlessly tout the benefits of “walkability,” in reality the town is filled with woefully cracked and broken sidewalks combined with blocks where sidewalks are entirely lacking and pedestrians share the street with cars.
Notwithstanding public meetings, good intentions and dollars spent on “planning,” “studies” and imported “experts and consultants,” little seems to have been accomplished other than to hang a few banners, host a monthly street party and devise a baroque new parking ordinance that–when ultimately unveiled–is sure to bring yet another round of groans.
But though the public sector may be neglecting Maui’s most charming and historic town, private enterprise is little by little reviving its life and vitality, especially in the heart of town. If you haven’t been to Wailuku recently it’s time to take a walk around the core blocks bounded by Central Avenue, Main Street, Market Street and Vineyard Street.
These days in Wailuku you can now be fitted for and buy custom lingerie and ladies undergarments, browse among a selection of imported teas, art supplies and high end pens and writing instruments, enjoy freshly made malasadas, view a nice selection of children’s books, get a very good massage, practice yoga, enjoy a variety of natural foods including a popular acai bowl and other healthful (but not cheap) treats and find a growing number of boutiques featuring interesting and nicely selected clothing and accessories for women (See “Around Town” for a list of fairly recent arrivals as well as veteran Wailuku emporiums).
Not only is there new life in the old town, some of its better established shops and venues are still going strong. These include: Native Intelligence, a shop featuring authentic contemporary Hawaiiana and specialized leis, and Requests Music, Maui’s best place to shop for used CDs, DVDs, LPs, and sound of all kinds. Also still doing a brisk business is Wailuku Coffee Co., not to mention the ongoing classes and shows of not one but two live theaters, (Maui Academy of Performing Arts and the Iao Theater, the home of Maui On Stage.)
In short, despite an iffy economy, Wailuku seems to be staging a comeback.
In its most optimistic incarnation, Wailuku is trying hard to be a university town. Since the upgrade of Maui Community College to UH Maui College Wailuku has assumed a few (a very few) of the features of a hip place to visit, albeit in a very small area, and only during daylight hours. But truthfully, to find the good in Wailuku you don’t need to look far.
Conversely, the bad is right in your face, too. The restaurant on the ground floor of the building next door to the Iao Theater is vacant yet again. If memory serves, this was the same building which was upgraded at the public expense but has yet to perform as hoped.
Yes, Wailuku is still a town where the grass grows in the street and is waist high in the vacant lots. For every shop, business or home that has made recent improvements like the Four Sisters Bakery on Vineyard, there are blatant codes violations that will never be enforced and an utter absence of safe walkways. Children, adults, dogs and chickens proceed at their own risk.
And speaking of chickens, it was only a few weeks ago that a Swiss tourist stood in the middle of Vineyard Street videotaping a flock of our ever so quaint and rapidly expanding free roaming fowl population. Welcome to Wailuku, where roosters, hens and multiple generations of chicks abound along with a drifting population of homeless, vagrants and street people.
With the election over, we can only hope that the winners will decide to actually find the time and more importantly the will to make the needed improvements to the parking lot, quit trying to draw pie-in-the-sky plans for a utopian village and actually do the maintenance to retain and upgrade what already exists. Wailuku is a wonderful town and it’s trying so hard to prosper. It would be nice if the county fathers and mothers in their comfy High Street offices would lend a hand.
As for the ugly, rather than harp on the number and kind of dwellings and structures badly in need of a coat of paint, a yard trim, or trash run, it would be wonderful if the public funds spent on a monthly party would be diverted or expanded to fix-up and clean-up drives. Paint is cheap and it makes a big difference.
Is it too much to hope that other members of the MPD would get out of their patrol cars and actually take to bikes or patrol on foot as they do so admirably in others parts of the island?
And finally, as much as pawnbrokers are a major employer in Wailuku, do we really need the flags that say CASH FOR GOLD, PAWN, or the huge permanently parked truck with a giant sign advertising LOANS in lurid colors?
Wailuku is trying to stage a comeback, and finally it seems at least some of the indicators are pointing up. It would be wonderful if the voices of the people who live, work and actually own property in the town could be heard. While the Maui Redevelopment Agency (MRA) set up in 2000 was supposed to hasten the upgrade in theory, in reality that hasn’t been the case. While the MRA might have been a positive step in the past, now almost 15 years later there has been little to show for its existence, and in some ways it has created yet another layer of bureaucracy.
It’s not my intention to speak ill of the many Maui residents who have voluntarily given of their time and services to this unpaid post, only to point out that the real recent accomplishments in Wailuku Town have come from not from the MRA and the county planner. The progress comes instead from elbow grease and energy of private citizens who have been willing to invest in Wailuku.
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If you haven’t been to Wailuku in a while, take a walk around the blocks bounded by Vineyard, Market, Main and Central and visit some of the new shops and interesting older venues. Here’s a partial list of what you’ll find:
• Honey–A Sweet Boutique. A relatively recent addition to the neighborhood, this store features women’s clothing and accessories, many by local artists. 105 N. Market St.; Facebook.com/HoneyASweetBoutique
• Kama‘aina Loans. This spiffy addition to the Kama‘aina string of pawn shops boasts a huge fish tank and an interesting assortment of musical instruments, especially ‘ukuleles, acoustic and electric guitars. It also features many other items including jewelry and antiques. 98 Market St.; Kamaainaloan.com
• Brown and Kobayashi. This shop is a 19 year veteran of Market Street and showcases Asian antiques in wood, metal, ceramic and stone. Bring your checkbook. 98 Market St.
• Green Ti Boutique and Massage. Pleasant, affordable, convenient. Gift certificates available. 40 N. Market St.; Greentimaui.com
• Dave Sandell Art Studio. Dave Sandell puts his imagery on everything from T-shirts to panoramic views of Wailuku past and present. This longtime Maui artist offers a wide range of subject matter and colorful style, and is well represented in many local collections. 34 N. Market St.
• Wailuku Coffee Company. The place to see and be seen in downtown Wailuku. 26 N. Market St.; Wailukucoffeeco.com
• Farmacy Health Bar. This location was formerly a shave ice shop, but didn’t seem to catch on. So the management converted healthy and nutritious food from local growers and it’s rapidly finding a clientele. 12 N. Market St.; Facebook.com/farmacyhealthbar
• Maui Thing & Children’s Bookstore. This shop features locally designed clothing with a Maui theme. It has recently added children’s books and toys in a cheerful, pleasant and creative setting. 7 N. Market St.; Mauithing.com
• Requests Music. Another longtime fixture in Wailuku is packed to the rafters music in all its forms: CDs, LPs, DVDs as well as comics and pop culture items. 10 N. Market St.; Requestshawaii.com
• Recarte Holt & Roe. An eclectic combo of imported and custom teas, antiques, art supplies and high-end pens. 1997 Main St.; Facebook.com/rhrpenshop
• Curious Imports. Specializing in unusual handmade furniture as well as smaller hand-crafted items including jewelry. 1980 Main St.; Curiousmaui.com
• Native Intelligence. For the lover of things Hawaiian: fresh lei, books, hula implements, feather work, clothing and more. Comfortable chairs encourage those so inclined to linger. 1980 Main St.; Facebook.com/native.intel
• Sabado Art Studio. Phillip Sabado is one of Maui’s most popular artists. He hosts an open studio featuring his original paintings and prints. He holds life drawing class every Thursday. 1980 Main St.; Sabadostudios.com
• Uncle Jesse’s Place. This long time shop on Central recently moved a few doors down. It carries a variety of goods for martial arts, hunting and camping. 37 Central Ave.; Unclejessesplace.com.
• Perfection Bra Fitting. This shop for intimate ladies attire has recently moved from Church Street to Central. It features ladies bras, foundation garments and swimwear, as well as personal fitting. Appointments suggested, but not required. 39 Central Ave.; Perfectionbrafitting.com
• Simply Sweets Bakery. Local treats especially malasadas which they’ve renamed Mauisadas. 1910 E. Vineyard St.
• Vineyard Street Food Company & Catering. From Soup to Nuts. Check their website for weekend events and meals. Their dining room may be rented for special occasions. 1951 E. Vineyard St.; Cateringfromsouptonuts.com
• Four Sisters Bakery. This old-time Wailuku bakery was recently spruced up with major renovations and lots of fresh paint. At Thanksgiving, the traffic backs up for blocks for their pies. Try their other goodies as well, with an emphasis on Filipino treats. 1968 E. Vineyard St.
Photo: Darris Hurst