Honolulu is the capital of Hawaii. It is the state’s only unified city and county, encompassing the entire island of Oahu. As Hawaii’s center of commerce, Honolulu is home to about 70 percent of Hawaii’s residents, as well as its principal harbor and primary airport. Its location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean makes the subtropical island both a popular tourist destination and a strategic outpost for all branches of the U.S. military.
As the capital city of an isolated island state, Honolulu is the hub of air and sea transportation for Hawaii. While the neighbor islands all have regional airports, Honolulu International Airport is the primary gateway for air travel to the U.S. mainland and the Pacific region, as well as the main entry point for most Hawaii tourists.
As the city grows, primarily toward the west, the City and County of Honolulu is building a $10 billion elevated rapid-transit line that will cover 20 miles from east Kapolei to Ala Moana Center.
Honolulu’s growth has been limited by the natural borders created by the Koolau Mountains to the east, the Waianae Mountain Range to the west and the Pacific Ocean. For decades, the vast agricultural tracts owned by sugar and pineapple growers also kept urban sprawl in check. Today, almost one-third of the state’s population lives in the city of Honolulu, defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as the 84 square miles of land from Makapuu to Halawa Valley. Much of Honolulu’s infrastructure is currently overtaxed.
Honolulu is an unincorporated city. It spans the area that includes major government and business districts, as well as most of the high-rise office towers and condominiums that define the city’s skyline. The U.S. Census Bureau designates the city as the area from Makapuu to Halawa Valley. Some of Honolulu’s most recognizable landmarks fall within those boundaries, including Diamond Head Crater, Waikiki Beach, Ala Moana Center, Iolani Palace, Honolulu Harbor, Aloha Tower, historic downtown Honolulu and the USS Arizona Memorial.
Honolulu county encompasses the entire island of Oahu, which, at about 600 square miles, is often the measure Honolulu leaders use to describe the city. Waikiki and downtown Honolulu lie along the city’s south shore. The county extends west to the Ko Olina resort area and the Waianae coast and mountain range. The lush Windward side lies just past the city’s eastern border, sheltered by the Koolau Mountains. The island’s North Shore is a surfing mecca that includes the Banzai Pipeline, Waimea Bay and Sunset Beach.
As of 2013, U.S. Census estimates the City and County of Honolulu had 983,429 residents. Children and seniors account for more than a third of the population, with about 15 percent of Honolulu residents 65 years and older, slightly higher than both state and national averages.
Honolulu, nicknamed “The Gathering Place,” is known for its rich ethnic diversity. Hawaii is the only state that has never had a Caucasian majority. Since the late 18th century, the island’s original native Hawaiian settlers have been joined by migrants from Europe, North America and waves of immigrants from Japan, the Philippines, China, as well as other Asian and Pacific Island counties. Collectively Asians make up nearly half of the population; Whites and Hispanics, about a quarter; Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders about 10 percent. Those of mixed race account for more than 20 percent.
Honolulu has a higher median household income than the rest of the state or the nation. Honolulu also has fewer people living in poverty. Because many of the county’s residents live in a relatively small geographic area, the economic disparity is often literally on display. It’s not uncommon for public housing units to be tucked into middle class neighborhoods or for affordable units to be built in the lower floors of newly constructed luxury condominiums.
Some scholars estimate Polynesian migrants arrived in Hawaii as early as 400 A.D.. Archaeologists believe it was centuries before the voyagers made their way up the island chain to Oahu. Oral history and archaeology date the earliest settlement on Oahu to 1100 A.D. In 1794, Capt. William Brown became the first foreigner to sail to Honolulu, guiding the English ship Butterworth into a well-protected natural harbor. He named it Fair Haven, but his contemporaries more commonly referred to as Brown’s Harbor. In the 1800s it took on the name Honolulu (“sheltered harbor”) while the city of Honolulu developed nearby.
Honolulu didn’t become part of the Hawaiian Kingdom until 1804. King Kamehameha I, on his way to unifying the major Hawaiian Islands, conquered Oahu in a decisive battle in Nuuanu Valley. He forced his opponents up a 1,000 foot cliff (“pali” in Hawaiian), where many leapt or fell to their deaths rather than surrender.
After taking control of Oahu, Kamahemeha I moved his court from the Big Island of Hawaii to Waikiki. He relocated it again to downtown Honolulu five years later to be closer to the harbor, where fragrant sandalwood — used for perfumes, cosmetics, incense and wood carvings — could be exported at a premium, particularly to China. Within a couple of decades, however, the Hawaiians had harvested the slow-growing sandalwood trees to near extinction. But even without the precious export, Honolulu Harbor remained the center of commerce for Oahu, welcoming whalers and traders who needed a place to restock, refuel and find some rest and relaxation.
But other Westerners saw Honolulu as more than just a way-station in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. In the 1820s, Christian missionaries from New England arrived in Hawaii and began exerting a Western influence through religion, education, economics and politics. In 1835, the first large commercial sugar plantation opened. As the industry took hold, more plantations opened and waves of laborers from China, Japan, Portugal, Puerto Rico and the Philippines arrived to work in the cane fields and factories.
The sugar industry thrived, helped in part by the American Reciprocity Act of 1874, which let the United States use Pearl Harbor as a naval base in exchange for duty-free importation of Hawaiian sugar. The tourism industry, on the other hand, would be slow to take hold, largely because it took weeks to travel by boat. The first attempt, a “HOTEL AT WAITITI” was advertised in the July 1, 1837, edition of the Sandwich Island Gazette. It closed after just a few years. The second wouldn’t open until 1888 and was also short lived, although it was leased and reopened as Sans Souci in 1893, becoming Waikiki’s first popular beach resort. Author Robert Louis Stevenson was one of the hotel’s first guests. Decades later, the introduction of trans-oceanic/trans-pacific commercial jet service in 1959 finally helped Honolulu’s tourism industry take off.
Honolulu has been the seat of government in Hawaii since 1850, when King Kamehameha III proclaimed it the capital of his kingdom. In 1959, Hawaii became a state and the Hawaii Legislature granted home rule to the counties. In Honolulu, this meant adoption of a city charter that created a mayor-council government structure.
The mayor serves as chief executive officer of the city, with responsibilities that include supervision of the executive agencies responsible for public safety and welfare; culture and recreation; community and human development; citizen participation; and general government operations.
A nine-member city council is responsible for legislative and investigative functions. All offices are nonpartisan and candidates are elected to four-year terms for a maximum of two consecutive terms. Elections are conducted by the city clerk every two years.
The mayor, city council and their appointees hold much of the power in Honolulu. Public worker unions, who represent many of the city’s essential workers, also wield significant influence. Lobbyists for public utilities, prominent developers and large landowners also have a voice in city planning and growth.
Elected neighborhood board members serve in an advisory capacity, bringing the issues that impact their communities to the attention of government officials.