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Street performers grow despite Hawaii's tourism decline

Robbie Dingeman,  Jun 30, 2009

While Hawaii tourism has slowed, the number of street performers, artists, and other sidewalk entrepreneurs appears to be growing along Waikiki's Kalakaua Avenue.

The more than decade-old practice of performing on Waikiki's main drag continues because an anti-peddling law does not prevent vendors from working on the sidewalk for donations. If they ask people to pay a set price, then they are breaking the law.

Many tourists say they enjoy the quirky offerings as a cheap and colorful form of entertainment, while some visitors paying to stay in nearby hotels complain about the nighttime noise. The informal street market also prompts some grumbling from businesses that compete with the rent-free street scene.

"It's very clear that selling goods or services on the sidewalk is illegal," said Rick Egged, of the Waikiki Improvement Association. "Even if they are nominally saying it's a donation, that doesn't excuse them."

On a recent night, there were at least 24 performers and other operators set up in a three-block section of Kalakaua.

"I think it's great. It's part of the attraction," said Dee Schomaker, who was visiting from Arizona and getting a "foot reflexology" massage from Oscar Manzano. "You want the touristy thing to do."

And even though her hotel room was nearby, Schomaker said she wasn't bothered by the noise from the performers. "It's the Hawaiian band playing in the lobby that's more of a nuisance," she said.

The silver man who goes by the name of Tron said he has been appearing on street corners for 21 years. He would not give his real name but said he earns enough in tips to make a living from it.

"I'm a dancer and I'm a robotic statue," he said.

Nearby, the performer known as basketball man regularly attracts a crowd that spills into the street and takes in hundreds of dollars in tips, say those who pass by.

Police say disputes happen sometimes when visitors and vendors disagree on the appropriate donation.

"A tourist will go over there and throw in a dollar and the vendor will say no, it's US$20," said Lt. Cary Okimoto, who has worked in Waikiki since 2003.

Growing Scene

For the first six months of this year, Okimoto said, there have been 55 peddling "contacts," which includes arrests, citations, or suspected cases that don't result in an official action. Okimoto said that's often because a tourist who's headed home within days doesn't want to file a complaint. They tell police: "I did give him US$20 but I don't want to be a witness in your case."

He said police try to keep an eye on the street scene in balance with investigating fights, thefts, and other crimes.

Honolulu police Capt. Jeff Richards said police have noticed a growth in the street scene. But he said officers need to work within the law and not all the laws are clear-cut. For example, the noise regulations apply to recorded music, not someone performing live.

"We do enforce the peddling laws as best we can," he said. He said some folks out on the sidewalk nightly have been arrested three, four, or five times.

Police make arrests for peddling or obstructing the sidewalk, Richards said. But he said paying a petty misdemeanor fine of less than US$100 doesn't discourage them for too long.

Another common complaint is the noise, said David Lewin, general manager of the Hyatt Regency Waikiki Beach Resort & Spa.

"My issue is not with street performers or the traffic it creates. My issue is with noise."

Lewin, who lives in Waikiki, has called police more than once about a man playing an eight-piece drum set and he's puzzled that police don't stop it without a call.

"It's annoying," Lewin said. "You can't sleep through a drummer; you can't sleep through a trumpet player. I've called the police at one in the morning. Ten minutes later, they got rid of the guy."

Three years ago, Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann vetoed a bill that would have placed some limits on the performers. The City Council had approved a plan that would have banned the street performers in a four-block stretch of Waikiki for three hours nightly.

At the time, Hannemann cited the opposition of the American Civil Liberties Union, the threat of lawsuits and his belief that a compromise could be worked out.

After all the controversy, no new law was passed. And Waikiki City Council member Charles Djou — an advocate of performer limits — said he's not inclined to press hard for any new regulation as long as Hannemann remains opposed, even though he thinks the scene creates a safety hazard and sometimes impedes businesses.

"It's a problem. It has been and continues to be," Djou said. "But unless the mayor has changed his position, I'm not confident we'd be able to override the political reality."

Legislation Elusive

The street scene stretches mainly from the area near Duke's Lane and across from the Royal Hawaiian Center down past the prime space fronting the International Market Place and past the Hyatt Regency Waikiki.

The executive director of the Waikiki Business Improvement District sees no current push for legislation.

"It's been difficult to find a regulatory approach that would satisfy everyone," said Jan Yamane of the Waikiki Business Improvement District.

The director of the Mayor's Office of Economic Development, Ann Chung, said Hannemann has been responding recently to more vocal concerns about park conditions, beaches, and bathrooms in the area.

"The majority of concerns we have heard lately in Waikiki focused on improving cleanliness and safety in and around Kapiolani Park," Chung said. But she is aware of some concerns. "We continue to monitor the situation with street performers ... and are investigating further the exact nature and extent of the problem."

Another complaint comes from small-business people who rent places in Waikiki but see others set up shop for free on the sidewalk.

"The shop owners pay taxes and the street performers don't," said Lewin, the Hyatt general manager.

Still, some of the nearby shop operators say they get overflow from the performers.

Ashley Seiter, who works at the Crocs store, likes the atmosphere. "It definitely doesn't hurt business to have people gathering outside the store," Seiter said. "Without it, you just have another outdoor shopping center."

Yamane, who represents the Waikiki businesses, said some members do complain that the performers block the sidewalk.

"We still are very concerned about the crowds that form out there," she said. "It's difficult to find a happy medium. From our perspective, we are concerned about pedestrian safety."

Yamane's organization donates money for police overtime for enhanced patrols by officers who focus on sidewalk activities that include illegal peddling, soliciting for prostitution, and obstructing the sidewalk.

The street scene begins to emerge as early as 5:00 pm, but the crowds increase closer to 7:00 pm.

Tattoo artist Josh Crowell works by day in a Chinatown tattoo studio but spends several nights each week doing henna, or temporary, tattoos along Kalakaua, usually in front of Macy's where the light is good. "I pay my taxes and work really hard during the day," he said.

Crowell said he enjoys the friendly diverse crowds and prefers it to when he did the same kind of work at a shop nearby. "We get all kinds of people from everywhere," he said. "That's what makes it exciting."

On the street, he depends on tips but says people are usually generous. Mayra Henaine, of Mexico, stopped by with her mother and got two henna tattoos — a lizard above her hip and a kiss lip print near her shoulder. They had checked out the various streetside artists the night before, then decided on Crowell.

"It's the perfect place — Hawaii — and he's really good," Henaine said. She gave Crowell US$15.

Street performers grow despite Hawaii's tourism decline
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