In 2014, when Kaka‘ako was on the verge of becoming a major construction site and a cluster of great, temporary places like Taste, Cocina and R/D served as developers’ cultural bait to an area with little human traffic and lots of free parking, Adele Balderston launched 88 Block Walks, a social practice art project meant to preserve the threatened authenticity of the neighborhood.
Raised on O‘ahu, Balderston is a geographer by training. As a graduate student at Hunter College in New York she wrote her Masters thesis on Kaka‘ako’s ongoing gentrification. That paper turned into 88 Block Walks, named for the 88 blocks that comprise Kaka‘ako. The series of walking tours explores gentrification, displacement, urbanization and generational change within Kakaʻako’s cultural, historical, and physical landscape. Part archival research, part performance art, the tours offer place-based knowledge as a lived experience. “I share stories about parts of the neighborhood that are no longer visible,” says Balderston, who enhances the walks with projections, portable speakers, actors, and, of course, maps.
Three years later, Balderston is preparing for her fifth walk—and is also settling in as the museum’s new web project manager. She joined the HoMA staff in June, bringing with her a skill set that positions her to add new tools to the museum’s communications work—like mapping. She is already working on ideas for putting a Honolulu guide to public Abstract Expressionist works online, as part of programming for the upcoming exhibition Abstract Expressionism: Looking East from the Far West, opening Sept. 7.
Balderston loves that “there is always something new to map. Coastlines change, as do populations and political boundaries, not to mention the built environment.” That’s what attracted her to Kaka‘ako, which is getting a double-fisted extreme makeover by Kamehameha Schools (Our Kaka‘ako) and Howard Hughes Corporation (Ward Village).
“Over the last five years you may have seen close to a dozen condo towers ascend into the Honolulu skyline,” says Balderston. “You might also know that another dozen or so towers are slated to join them in the coming years. But did you know that a channelized stream or ‘auwai—once the source of a fishpond, the runoff from which irrigated lo‘i kalo—has been flowing from Blaisdell Center, under Ward Warehouse and into Kewalo Harbor for more than 80 years? Did you know that the Diamond Head corner of Kaka‘ako Waterfront Park—currently home to many of Honolulu’s houseless—was once called ‘Squattersville,’ an encampment of 700 Kanaka Maoli living in shacks?” Those are the kinds of past histories she shares and keeps alive through her walks.
Up next is Walk #5: The Living Archive, happening Aug. 26 and Sept. 2 at 7:30 and 9pm. Presented in partnership with Interisland Terminal and partly funded by a Hawai‘i Council for the Humanities grant, this latest tour is 88 Block Walks’ grand finale, coming at a time when eight new condo towers have been completed since she began the project. “It’s the final form of an oeuvre that I’ve been working toward for three years,” says Balderston.” The event features mobile projections and actors in period costumes portraying fictional versions of former Kaka‘ako residents. The stories shared by these characters are mostly drawn from student essays archived in the University of Hawai‘i–Mānoa’s Romanzo Adams Social Research Library (RASRL) collection, a trove of undergraduate student research papers covering more than 50 years of personal observations of family, community and workplace relations throughout Hawai‘i.
“The uncertainty and anxiety described in the past reflects today’s public discourse surrounding the neighborhood’s redevelopment,” says Balderston. “Though the current pace of construction in Kakaʻako feels frenzied, these essays suggest that change has been the area’s one true constant.”
For Balderston, philosopher George Santayana’s famous quote about those not remembering the past being condemned to repeat it especially applies to Kaka‘ako, whose history follows the urban patterns found around the world.
“The neighborhood grew out of a need for affordable housing close to downtown, and was later condemned because it was considered urban blight,” explains Balderston. “It seems that 60 years later, planners and developers are making the same mistakes. To me, that indicates a need for us to reconnect with our past. The built environment is not a fixed thing, and it’s not actually the focus of my tours. The residents who were displaced in the mid 20th century had a strong sense of identity, and even though their district was viewed by outsiders as a slum, they were proud of what they had built—not the buildings but the connections, the organizations, the sense of community. That is what I try to share.”