Co-operation Makes It Happen

Chinatown Artist Lofts
Image by Aaron Yoshino

Text by Margot Seeto

Photo by Honozooloo

Creative Research Co-op at the Chinatown Artists Lofts.

The idea of communal living, the co-operative, the idea of sharing resources to advance a common goal, while only recently gaining a foothold in big cities like San Francisco and New York, has been an idea perpetuated by our ancient Hawaiian ancestors since the days of the ahupua‘a. Much has been criticized in the way of Hawai‘i as being backward, always behind the times. Perhaps it is a looking to the past in order to pave the way for our future.

On today’s O‘ahu, the increasingly limited space on the island and its isolated location have created a place with expensive property and an over-dependence on imported goods – an overall higher cost of living for people who typically don’t earn as much as their counterparts on the continental US. On an island so small, O‘ahu and its neighbors seem like ideal places for co-operative living, or the co-op, to flourish, ascribing to a different kind of contemporary ahupua‘a system. Whether to gain mechanical skills, provide food, help small businesses get off the ground or to help artists share their work with the community, the co-op movement on O‘ahu is exponentially essential for reasons both practical and philanthropic – for the survival of people and for the preservation and perpetuation of culture.

The co-op movement is believed to have its roots in 19th century Europe, but the ancient Hawaiian concept of ahupua‘a prevailed long before. Different from private land ownership, the ahupua‘a land division system had each island (mokupuni) divided into large units (moku), and each moku was divided into ahupua‘a. The size of the moku depended on the resources of each area – whatever semblance of land and water that could ensure a constant supply of food and other resources for the area’s residents determined the divisions.

Today, whether the word, “sharing,” brings back childhood memories of fighting with your siblings over the last piece of candy from the Halloween stash or the time when your livelihood depended on an extra sandwich from a colleague in exchange for washing the dishes, the concept of communal resources for survival has always brought people together – sometimes willingly, sometimes not.
Do you remember the communal table trend at so many restaurants that boomed a few years ago? Whether you begrudgingly shared a table at a crowded restaurant for the sake of sparing your tired feet, your rumbling stomach and another hour in line, or whether you were eager to dive into conversation with the stranger next to you (spinach between teeth and all) about your favorite dishes at the restaurant and your pets’ funny habits at home, the communal concept going mainstream for the sake of social engineering struck a nerve in society during a time that was – and still is – tough on the economy.

Times that are tough on a society’s pocketbook have a negative domino effect on morale and a myriad of other aspects of a well-functioning community. However, one strength of a people that has emerged time and again is that adversity breeds creativity, that in every unfortunate situation is an opportunity, if not many. This is when the idea of sharing moves beyond the selfish childhood memories and flourishes into progressive, innovative and organized ways to make something out of what may initially appear to be nothing.

While collectives rely on a pool of talent, these purveyors of talent must first have the resources to produce. This is when the co-op comes into play as a root of a society’s ability to create what is necessary and what is beautiful.

One of the vanguards of this movement is Rich Richardson of The ARTS at Marks Garage, a gallery and multi-use space in what has been dubbed Honolulu’s Arts and Culture District, an area that straddles Honolulu’s downtown and Chinatown. The ARTS nurtures new arts collectives such as Space & Sound, provides local theater troupes such as On The Spot with performance space, and spearheads events such as the growing “Slow Art Fridays” – a walking art gallery event that centers people around a hub of slow food, organic wine, live music and yes, a communal table.

In this community-minded artistic vein, Richardson has helped to create the Chinatown Artists Lofts in the historic Mendonca Building, which are relatively affordable spaces for working artists. A long-time dream finally realized this year, the lofts have become a reality with help from a revived nonprofit, the Hawai‘i Academy of Performing Arts (HAPA), and the for-profit Chinatown Yacht Club, which occupies a space in the same building as the lofts. Richardson hopes this nonprofit-for profit partnership model will enable a sustainable arts endeavor in the lofts that will produce “a nice bit of synergy … [making] Chinatown more appealing, artist-friendly – a creative industry finally.”

Whether you’ve always been a working artist and are continually looking for the perfect way to share resources with like-minded people, or are curious about exploring a skill set that may not be so friendly on your wallet or tiny living space, O‘ahu is rich in resources. Below are just some of the co-ops that are making the island go ’round.


At The Chinatown Artists Lofts

The artist co-op consists of Ricafort, along with three bands, a writer and a performance artist.

Artist Vince Ricafort knew his artist loft would be for more than just himself. Before the lofts’ availability, Ricafort says, “A space dedicated to our creative activities was new to us. … I became occupied with the question of how to sustain such a place.” Realizing that his friends, also artists in various media, needed a creative workspace, as well, he decided to form the Creative Research Co-operative, which has two studios, storage space, a writing desk, a draftsmen’s table, film screening area and open performance space. “It is a place where we can develop our ideas, reflect on our experiences and share our dreams,” he says. The six lead members of his co-op, aside from himself, consist of three bands, a writer and a performance artist. “Not all of us are always profitable. So it’s nice to have a space that’s affordable and have a space that allows us that freedom. … I’ve never been in a place where it’s been as acceptable to be loud or creative or weird,” says Ricafort.

Chinatown Artists Lofts, located in the Joseph. P. Mendonca Building

1116 Smith St.

For more information on the Creative Research Co-op CLICK HERE


The 1-year-old Kickstand, run by Nicky Rowles and Cyrus Camp, a co-founder of the volunteer-run Cycle Mānoa, implores a bike shop model that incorporates several elements to create a community – it’s also a cafe and a workshop. The Mechanics’ Club, one of the services The Kickstand offers, is a way for cyclists both new and experienced to have access to bike work stands, to tools that would otherwise be expensive for a single cyclist to purchase, as wells as to skills and knowledge from other cyclists about bicycle mechanics. “It’s very much a community feeling here. There are people of all levels. It’s a very welcoming atmosphere. There are customers helping other customers,” says Camp. A mere $60 for a six-month membership gets you unlimited access to The Kickstand’s resources.

The Kickstand

345 Wai‘alae Avenue, 2nd Floor.

Mechanics’ Club fee is $60 for six months, or $15/hour for single-time tool rental.

CLICK HERE for more info.

Waialua Community Kitchen

It’s not magic that enables aspiring food entrepreneurs to sell their grandmother’s banana bread from their food trucks or booths at farmers’ markets. Many vendors get their start at kitchen incubators, such as the Waialua Community Kitchen. With access to a stove, two ovens, a steam kettle, a fryer and a walk-in fridge and freezer, vendors, for either a monthly or hourly fee, are able to do the necessary prep work on the scale that a household kitchen would not be able to – physically or legally. John Hirota, the kitchen manager, says the incubator and co-op got its start in 2001 from a $100,000 Department of Defense grant. Users of the kitchen also have the option to enroll in entrepreneurship classes through another nonprofit organization in Waialua called Empower O‘ahu.

Waialua Community Kitchen, old Waialua sugar mill

Call 551-4464 for details.

Minimum monthly rate is $300/month for monthly vendors (five hours a week minimum); $15/hour occasional users.


With a drum set, guitar, bass, amps, mics, mic stands, cords and a piano present at all times, and at only $10 an hour, the Blaisdell Studios sound like a dream for many local bands. Josh86, music promoter and member of 86 List, Black Square and Pressure Drop, came across the studios in the historic Blaisdell Hotel through Ricafort. Josh86 started with one room, but has since grown to running two rooms in the past year and hopes to expand to help even more artists. Currently, 12 bands share the space. “Artists or musicians have to have their own space to create. They need a sense of ownership, a creative zone, a special safe area where they can be expressive,” he says. In addition to the affordable rates, communal equipment and interesting art in the space by the likes of tattoo artist Mike Ledger, bands are encouraged to book blocks of time from two to five hours in order to keep the creative process unbroken, as opposed to the usual rushed process that can take place in more expensive studios.

Blaisdell Studios located in Blaisdell Hotel

1154 Fort Street Mall.

$10/hour, monthly rates available.

For more information, email [email protected].


In existence since 1970, Kokua Market is still the only natural foods co-op in the islands. “It’s meant to educate the community about sustainable living. All profits go back into the community by offering community services and providing the things that the store owners want. They are the ones who have originally supported local organic farmers for 40 years,” says Leslie Ashburn, Kokua’s marketing and outreach coordinator. At only $150 for a lifetime share of the co-op, payable in $10 installments if necessary and fully refundable at any time, the democratic values of the co-op is a strong attraction for people – Kokua currently has about 2,500 owners. The co-op’s website also functions as a social network, adding another element to the co-op to help facilitate community.

Kokua Market

2643 S. King Street

For more info CLICK HERE.

My Cart Close (×)

Your cart is empty
Browse Shop