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The High Cost of Reclaiming My Paradise Lost on Oahu
Harvey Meeker longs to raise his daughter on the island where he grew up, but the price of paradise is keeping his family from returning to Hawaii.

About the Author

  • Harvey Meeker
    Harvey Meeker was born in Honolulu and raised on the windward side of Oahu. He is a computer programmer and martial artist who lives in Shelton, Connecticut with his wife and young daughter.

Some things have me thinking about what makes a place “home,” and where I want my daughter to grow up.

Our family ties to Hawaii go back to the 1940s when my grandfather was first stationed on Oahu for the Navy. He arrived in an island territory mostly covered in sugar cane. They lived in Lualualei on Oahu in military housing. My grandmother took the long commute to Punahou, where she taught, until they moved to a plantation house in Aiea Heights. From up there, they enjoyed an unobstructed view from the hills down to Pearl Harbor since the Arizona Memorial had yet to be built.

My two aunts and my father would commute to Punahou with my grandmother. After graduating they all left for college on the mainland. While working in New York City, my aunts met their future husbands and stayed on the East Coast. Only my father returned to live on Oahu.

I wasn’t the only one with Caucasian roots, but I was the designated “haole kid.” I had white-blond hair dyed by the sun to go with my light complexion.

My father left Stanford Law School during the war in Vietnam to serve as an officer in the Navy. He met my mother in Hawaii while he was still serving. She came from Portland to Hawaii with a friend on vacation, and decided to stay. She was waiting for my father on the dock when he returned after completing his service.

He stayed in the reserves and they married and lived together in California while he was getting his law degree at Stanford, but their shared love of Hawaii brought them back to live on Oahu.

Harvey Meeker as a child, with his dad

Harvey’s childhood on Oahu meant a lot of time in the water.

Courtesy of Harvey Meeker

I was born at Kapiolani Hospital in 1974. About a year later my parents moved to the neighborhood in Kaneohe where I have spent almost half of my life. Ahuimanu was rural back then. The development we moved into off Aialii Street was built around the time I was born. My parents couldn’t afford to buy so we rented a home in one of the few neighborhoods that had been built out there at the time. I remember when Kahekili was a two-lane road all the way to Likelike Highway, and the green of the Koolau Mountain Range.

The neighborhood was filled with young families grounded in blue-collar professions. There were some white-collar folks, but my father was an anomaly with his Princeton undergrad and Stanford law degrees.

I wasn’t the only one with Caucasian roots, but I was the designated “haole kid.” I had white-blond hair dyed by the sun to go with my light complexion.

Growing up in that neighborhood with a mix of Filipino, Chinese, Japanese, Samoan and Hawaiian kids — among others — was an interesting counterpoint to my private school education, first at Le Jardin Academy in Kailua and then at Punahou, starting in the 5th grade.

I didn’t understand it very well at the time, but I did recognize a difference between some of my neighborhood friends and me. They had to grasp for opportunities that were handed to me. Some of them couldn’t, or wouldn’t, make the leap. I didn’t have to.

Harvey Meeker and his dad in the shadow of the Koolau mountain range

Harvey and his dad in front of the Koolau Mountains that was the background for his life on Oahu.

Courtesy of Harvey Meeker

Still, my parents struggled with debt. My father found his footing in the business world, but discovered the pitfalls of running his own law practice. So, while I was well provided for, our lifestyle was not much better than those of our neighbors.

After high school I moved to Connecticut to go to college near my East-Coast family members. While I was away, my parents moved to a nearby neighborhood where they finally managed to buy a house.

The price of the small single-wall house with a small plot of land on a corner lot seemed exorbitant in the early 90s, especially when compared to most of the mainland. (I couldn’t come close to affording that home now.) My father borrowed part of the down payment from a friend to make the purchase possible.

I begged him to keep the house, knowing that, among other things, it might be my only chance to keep a foothold on the island.

At that time, childhood friends who had moved out of their parents’ homes were moving back in. The increasingly high cost of living on the island was driving them back toward their parents. Hawaii was beginning to put the squeeze on the middle class. The islands were at the forefront of that trend; much of the country has since followed.

I finished college with a B.S. in management information systems, but I didn’t return to Hawaii. I couldn’t move back in with my parents. For one thing their house was too small. For another, I had multiple job opportunities on the East Coast, and none in Hawaii.

My grandfather had moved away to Florida in the mid-90s to live in a huge home that he built with the proceeds from the sale of his Aiea Heights home. My parents were the only ones left on Oahu.

Generations of Meekers

Harvey, seen here as a toddler in this family snapshot, is nostalgic for the Oahu of his youth.

Courtesy of Harvey Meeker

My mother had no desire to leave Hawaii. Health problems ultimately made it clear my parents would stay. She passed away in 2010, with my father and I by her side.

The best man from my wedding, who was one of those neighborhood kids who used to call me haole, took us out on his boat out from Heeia Pier into Kaneohe Bay. We scattered her ashes in place with a view of the Koolau Mountain Range.

I dream about raising my daughter on the island where my childhood friends are nearby. But I think about the price I would have to pay and I can’t justify doing it.

My father lingered in Hawaii for several years, with memories of my mother drifting around what had been their house. He eventually met a woman who became his wife and they decided to leave Oahu for good.

I begged him to keep the house, knowing that, among other things, it might be my only chance to keep a foothold on the island. Financially it made sense to keep it, but for my father the emotional weight was just too heavy.

Needless to say that little house sold for much more than what my parents bought it for in the 90s, and that enabled my father and stepmother to buy a much larger and nicer house near Seattle and still have money in the bank.

Harvey Meeker and his daugher

Harvey longs to brings his daughter up on Oahu, but he is conflicted — and they live thousands of miles away on the East Coast.

Courtesy of Harvey Meeker

My father spent more than 60 years of his life in Hawaii, and he didn’t owe me anything, but I can’t help feeling that a part of my life is now over without that direct family connection. And, selfishly, I sometimes do blame him for ending that because my desire to return to Hawaii remains strong.

I dream about raising my daughter on the island where my childhood friends are nearby. But I think about the price I would have to pay and I can’t justify doing it.

I think about what I went through growing up as the haole, despite being kamaaina, and I wonder what I would be putting my daughter through with her blond hair and pale complexion.

I wish I could come home, but sometimes I fear the home I’m searching for now exists only in my mind.

I would want to send her to private school, Punahou being my first choice, and that would be at a great cost. It would also bring logistical challenges — I spent many hours commuting from Kaneohe to Punahou — as I think about the traffic on an overburdened transportation system.

And then there are the big economic realities. Despite earning a low six-figure income and having a job where I could work remotely from anywhere in the world, I still can’t afford a house in Kaneohe.

Harvey Meeker in Connecticut

Harvey enjoys the hills in Connecticut, but they are far from the Koolau Mountain Range that were the backdrop for his childhood.

Courtesy of Harvey Meeker

When I look at Hawaii now from the East Coast where I live, I see many of the problems our country is dealing with, but they are amplified to another level. While the middle class is squeezed on the mainland there is almost no middle class in Hawaii — not in the real sense. With a median home price around $700,000, there is little room for anyone earning “middle-class money” to move back to the islands. And price pressures is sure to push other locals to leave.

When I look at Hawaii with my heart, I see home. The child in me sees the place where I grew up, and the natural place for my family to be. When the air turns a certain way, to mildly humid with a breeze, here where I live, I think of trade winds, the green covered mountains and idle days spent in the shade or in the clear ocean.

I wish I could come home, but sometimes I fear the home I’m searching for now exists only in my mind.

Do you have a story about the human impact of the cost of living in the islands? If so, click on the red pencil button to share it through Connections, or drop a note to epape@civilbeat.com.

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