The CRC wants to shut down Lahaina's big October bash-but have they just made things worse?
September 18, 2008
It was a small kine decision. The refusal of one permit, two stages and a handful of nonprofit booths.
In a unanimous succession of "ayes," the members of the Cultural Resources Commission moved to deny a Lahaina Town Action Committee application to organize Halloween entertainment, T-shirt sales and food booths in a heated July 3 meeting.
But this story is not just about a permit or a stage. With this minor verdict handed down by the CRC, whose job is to protect the cultural heritage of Lahaina, came a hefty message, loud and crystal clear: Halloween as we've known it for more than 30 years will no longer be tolerated by Native Hawaiians who think the celebration is disrespectful in an area that was once a home for Hawaiian royalty.
"As a culture we have not stood up and said this is who we are. We have been kind. Generous to a fault," said CRC commissioner Raymond Hutaff. "And so things are allowed to come to a head to where it's very problematic. Now we have realized we are on the wrong path, and we need to change direction."
The question, however, is not if a massive crowd will descend on Lahaina on October 31. For roughly 30 years the costumed masses have ruled the street, and they will no doubt return in force again this year. The CRC—in an attempt to protect culturally valuable historic sites, send a message to the county and appease an impassioned but small group of protesters—has pulled the rug out from under the one entity in Lahaina that attempted to organize and control the party.
Debates about the merit of Halloween in Lahaina have been going on in a series of public CRC meetings since the first complaints came across the desk of the commission in 2006. Letters and testimonies of support from the members of LAC, Lahaina merchants and Maui residents wanting to keep the LAC involved painted the one-day event as fun, harmless and economically beneficial. Opponents point to the negative effects of the large celebration in Lahaina, which over the years has come to be known as the Mardi Gras of the Pacific.
"The Cultural Resources Commission spent a considerable amount of time weighing the pros and cons that the community offered…particularly over the past two years when criticism of the evening activities in Lahaina Town grew into a contentious issue in the community," said Maui County Communications Director Mahina Martin, who attended this year's meeting and pledged the county's support for whatever decision the CRC reached.
The most heated arguments were heard last year in an August meeting in which the CRC reluctantly approved the permit with a 5-1 vote.
"My concern is it's going to happen anyway and I'd rather see it in a controlled environment," said CRC Chairman Sam Kalalau told the Maui News in a 2007 article.
This year the commission voted with concerned Native Hawaiians against the recommendation of the County Planning Department. Denying the permit will force the county to provide many services that the LAC did voluntarily and will prevent several nonprofits from setting up revenue-generating food and activity booths.
It's unclear exactly when and how Halloween in Lahaina, as a major Maui event, got started. Undoubtedly, costumed keiki have been raiding Front Street shops for candy loot for generations, and some time in the 1970s an annual parade of sugared-up little ones became a local tradition. Word of the party spread like wildfire and Front Street quickly became a destination for people from near and far on Halloween night.
In 1990 the LAC voluntarily stepped in to provide a sense of organization to the evening, which many people said was getting rowdy and out of control. They joined forces with the police to close off a portion of Front Street and worked with the Soroptomists, who organize the keiki parade, to combine it with the adult costume contest and live musical entertainment. Artisans and nonprofit groups set up booths for food sales and entertainment under the Banyan tree, while T-shirt sales and promotions were organized to attract revelers on what had become the busiest night of the year in Lahaina. They've been organizing the same event every year since.
"We recommended that they approve the permit," said Planning Department director Jeff Hunt, who attended last July's meeting to deliver the county's official stance on the Halloween permit. "We felt the permits were for amenities that provide positive, healthy alternatives to what many groups opposed about the event, such as excessive drinking. I think that it's unfortunate that there won't be these alternatives that are more creative. Some of the costumes in the contest take a lot of time and thought and people get very creative."
According to the LAC, the merchant group didn't begin the annual costume contest. They did, however, solicit sponsorship and raise funds to offer a bigger and better prize to the contest winners, encouraging ingenuity from the Maui community. Many elaborate Halloween costumes have been proudly paraded across the LAC stage in the 17 years they've organized the contest.
The department's recommendation for approval noted that the LAC has attempted to address some of the concerns Native Hawaiian groups had with the event and that a similar event has been run successfully and without incident since 1989.
"The LAC offered a lot of benefits for the events too, and a lot of those things the county and the taxpayers will have to pick up," said Hunt.
Last year the LAC paid for more than 20 portable toilets across the historical district as well as safety lighting in dark areas around the Banyan tree to support the estimated 30,000 people who come to Front Street on Halloween. They also paid for two extra police officers to keep an eye on the crowds and cleanup crews to return the district to an orderly state once the revelers had cleared.
Hunt also made a point to inform the CRC that voting against the permit application would not be the same as voting against Halloween. The permit was for entertainment stages and use of the historical district, but the public has a First Amendment right to show up in costume on Front Street regardless of whether or not the permit was approved.
"I expected to be able to work together to accomplish what we need to do to find solutions," said LAC Executive Director Rena Sampson, who was also the applicant for the denied permit.
Most of the opposition to the event began after a T-shirt design depicting a headless (and shirtless) Hawaiian warrior holding a pineapple surfaced. The LAC never sold the shirts.
Obviously, the members of the LAC—an organization of merchants and restaurant, activity and hotel owners that promotes tourism and events in Lahaina—are in a position to profit from a well-attended Halloween celebration. The Pioneer Inn has traditionally been booked up months in advance for Halloween; Lahaina restaurant and bar owners have reported sales increases of 25 to 50 percent for that night.
But the LAC does more than organize Halloween festivities. The group is the key sponsor of the International Festival of Canoes, an annual cultural event that promotes traditional Polynesian canoe carving. Lahaina restaurants and hotels, most of which are associated with the LAC, donate accommodations and meals to as many as 50 carvers who spend a week in Lahaina teaching and practicing this ancient art. Lahaina merchants also support the annual Kamehameha parade that honors the Hawaiian king and other great, historical families.
"Our town is known for visitors and caters to visitors as well as residents," said Sampson.
The current economic slowdown is being felt sharply by business all around Maui. This year the LAC did not have enough support to put on the Taste of Lahaina, an event that draws thousands of people each year to sample the creations of different Maui chefs and restaurants and benefits several nonprofit organizations.
"As a business owner I was disappointed in the decision because things like bathrooms, safety lighting and the organization of agencies, like the police and fire, were the role of the LAC," said Jerry Kunitomo, the owner of BJ's Pizzeria in Lahaina. "I think the permit application and the function of the event organizers became confused by the CRC."
The CRC and opponents of Halloween are hopeful that without the organization of entertainment and food booths by the LAC, Lahaina will become a less desirable place to spend the holiday and attendance will dwindle.
It's impossible to estimate what impact the CRC decision will have on business in Lahaina this year. Some say that without alternative entertainment and food options Front Street bars and restaurants could actually receive a boost in business.
According to the permit application, the community organizations that were lined up to take part in the Halloween event this year, and subsequently will suffer without the expected revenue, are: Lahaina Pop Warner, Lahaina High School Band, Kukulu Kumuhan, Santiago Association, Raenette Akima and Maui Surf Groms.
Opponents of Halloween feel strongly that economic gains are not a valid argument to keep the event alive and thriving in the historic district, and that the remnants of Lahaina's important role in Hawaiian history hold more value than the spoils Front Street businesses take from the festivities.
"It hurts me to sit here and allow our history to be dictated by people that want money, that think of money," Uilani Kapu of Kuleana Ku`ikahi testified to the CRC in 2007. "Go and do it in another area, not in our historical areas."
In Lahiana Historical District one, which stretches from Shaw to Papalua streets along Front Street, there are several important cultural sites and remnants, both from when Lahaina was the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom and from the bustling years when it was a whaling mecca. The great taro patch of the Pi`ilani family stretched across the waterfront where the Pioneer Inn and the Banyan tree now sit. Just beyond that is Moku`ula, the ancient residence of Hawaiian chiefs and the focus of an enormous restoration project that has been underway for more than 10 years.
These and other sites are central to the issues Native Hawaiians have with Halloween in Lahaina, but they're not the only sticking points. Lewdness, public drunkenness and rowdy behavior, combined with noise, traffic and parking issues have compounded the problem.
"Remember that this was the sacred home of the alii." said Patty Nishiyama of Na Kupuna O Maui, a longtime opponent of Halloween in Lahaina. "There's been so many changes, the children are confused. We don't want confusion for our culture, our island."
It would be a far stretch to say Halloween is a cultural celebration. In the Catholic religion Halloween falls on the day before All Saints Day and observers traditionally dress up as goblins and monsters to scare away bad spirits, but modern Halloween celebrations have little to do with any religious origins.
The festivities on Front Street probably have even less to do with their holy beginnings than most. After the jovial and always adorable keiki parade has made its way through town under the adoring eyes of parents and grandparents, Front Street becomes a place for costumed adults to congregate and party into the night. The wide majority of people are respectful, good-natured and there to enjoy the annual entertainment and put their creativity to the test in the costume contest.
But a not insignificant number of partiers get overly intoxicated and show up in costumes too lewd or revealing for a family affair, an image the LAC has recently been trying to promote for the festivities. It could be argued, in fact, that watching the spectacle unfold is a major draw for a lot of the people who make their way down on Halloween.
"We don't want our children to remember Lahaina as the Mardi Gras of the Pacific," said Nishiyama, referring to an advertising slogan the LAC used to promote the event but abandoned due to objections by Native Hawaiian organizations.
Nishiyama also says she supports the annual keiki Halloween parade as an acceptable form of celebration for Maui's children.
"It used to be Halloween for the keiki to go trick-or-treating," she said. "Now other islands look to Lahaina and call it Sin City. That's not for our town and our future generations."
The situation with the Halloween festivities in Lahaina and the conflict it faces didn't just happen overnight," said Martin. "I'm sure any kind of resolution will take an equal amount of time."
The county now has a new pair of shoes to fill, ones that were willingly worn by the staff of the LAC. Martin says plans are in progress to ensure public safety on Halloween this year, although she gave no direct answers as to how the county plans to provide restrooms, lighting, water and other necessities that massive crowds require. She did say that the individual businesses on Front Street have been contacted and will play a larger role in organization this year's event.
"The merchants are stepping forward to assist with clean up efforts," she said. "Their willingness to help and become part of the solution has been very impressive."
Sampson declined to comment on whether the LAC would pursue a permit for Halloween activities next year. It could be the end of an era for the LAC and for long-time Halloween participants.
Captain Charles Hirata of the Lahaina Police Department, who testified in 2007 about the benefits to public safety of granting the LAC permit, says nothing much will change on his end.
"We're basically going to respond in the same way," he said. "That means patrol traffic, manage safety and provide adequate personnel. We'll prepare for the worst, and hope for the best."
Halloween will come and go, just like it does each year. People will celebrate on Front Street like they always do. Some will put hours of effort into masterful costumes, some will arrive in outfits that would only be appropriate on Little Beach. People will get intoxicated, but many more will enjoy themselves just enough and not step over that line.
The bigger question is: How did it come to this? How did such a small community become so divided? At what point did it become Halloween supporters against Halloween haters; Native Hawaiians against the LAC; cultural respect versus economic progress?
A share of the problem lies in the public hearing process and its tendency to pit neighbor against neighbor like tattle-telling school children. Passionate testimony came from both sides. But in the end the county is left holding the bag and the community loses a beloved event. Historical sites are no safer without the LAC's organizational efforts and there's no guarantee that they ever will be.
"I really hate to see our community torn apart," said Kunitomo.
And people will wonder if other favored events, like the Fourth of July celebration or Chinese New Year in Lahaina, will come under fire for not being culturally significant enough to pass under the CRC's watchful eye. MTW
The keiki parade will still be held at 4pm down Front Street ending at the Banyan Tree
Individual businesses are planning to host themed events, but there will be no officially sanctioned costume contest or food, activity and craft booths
No alcohol will be allowed on the streets
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