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Nuuanu merchants tell crooks: Get off our street

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Nuuanu Avenue merchants are tired of the crime -- and ready to fight back by uniting against it.

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More than 50 merchants held a sign-waving protest outside the Arts at Marks Garage last week. In the past few months, they've been writing down license plates, documenting offenses and remembering faces. Many of them do not hesitate to call the police.

"It's gotten bad enough for us to say we're not going to take it anymore," said Kim Coffee-Isaak of the Arts at Marks Garage. "What's happened is the drug dealers have become more brazen and they're out in the open because time has passed and no one has done anything about it."

Besides on-the-street drug deals, problems include loitering, public urination and street brawls.

It gets worse during the evening hours, but occurs throughout the day, according to merchants.

The goal of the newly formed Nuuanu Merchants Association is to put a stop to the crime and upgrade the street, with the ultimate goal of creating a downtown arts district.

Nuuanu already is home to The Pegge Hopper Gallery, several restaurants, a few law offices and many small, independent art galleries.

Hawaii Theatre is right around the corner, with plenty of patrons who spill out into the neighborhood following performances.

The stretch also is host to First Friday, when the galleries open their doors in the evening for visitors to browse among the art, as well as the city's Mardi Gras celebration. In July, it will host the American Brews & Blues BBQ.

Isaak said the goal is to bring the community together to plan events and promote economic development. With funds from the last event, it will hang banners from the street lamps to create an identifiable presence on the street.

Crime is a constant and recurring problem in the area. In 2003, there were a total of 4,457 calls to the police in the area, according to Sgt. William Axt of the downtown district office.

The top-three crimes reported last year in the district bounded by River, Hotel, Nuuanu and Vineyard were:

Street arguments, 491

Suspicious circumstances, 380

Thefts, 186

During the year, there were 84 arrests made for drug and narcotics offenses, according to the Honolulu Police Department.

Valet drivers at Indigo Eurasian Cuisine at 1121 Nuuanu Ave. see it every day. They say the block between Hotel and Pauahi streets is basically a drive-through drug dealership.

"All I do is look out the window and I see them do it, passing one another drugs," said Rita Luke of Island Keepsakes, a specialty gift shop at the corner of Hotel and Nuuanu. "The police can do a bust in the morning, but by the afternoon there's a new crop" of sellers and buyers.

She credits police for patrolling the area -- and says the new substation on Hotel Street a block away helps. But as soon as the patrol cars have gone, she said, the drug dealers come back. Many of the same faces keep appearing despite the number of arrests.

Dave Stewart, co-owner of Indigo, blames some of the crime on slumlords who aren't maintaining their properties.

"They know who they are," he said. "They are the root cause of the whole problem. How can the street upgrade itself when you're looking at these buildings that attract unsavory characters?"

Dark alleyways tend to draw the dealers for surreptitious activities, he said. Some businesses on the street, merchants say, are also harboring the crime.

Stewart suggests creating a law that forces property owners to either sell or upgrade dilapidated buildings.

The U.S. Department of Justice Weed and Seed program launched in 1998 in the Kalihi-Palama-Chinatown area has made a difference. But more needs to be done, merchants say.

Don Murphy, of Murphy's Bar & Grill at the corner of Merchant and Nuuanu, said he's seen some improvement in his 17 years at the location. But crime is still a problem.

"We want to get it cleaned up so people want to come down here at nights," he said. "The police have made an effort to make it better. We've just got to get the laws changed so they get prosecuted. The police do everything they can."

While New York has SoHo and San Francisco has its SoMa district, Honolulu has a potential NoHo -- north of Hotel Street.

"I want my clients to feel safe," said a Nuuanu merchant from New York. "I want them to feel like they're in a beautiful neighborhood. I see this as the up-and-coming SoHo. If we could just get rid of this one problem, it would be amazing."

Stewart said he chose the location for Indigo 10 years ago because of the potential he saw for the neighborhood.

"Our vision is, at some point, we'd like to look like Waikiki with the hanging baskets and banners, and with Chinese lanterns everywhere, with lots of colors and activities," he said.

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