To go to Ewa Beach is to enter an American stereotype. Like a vision from the 1950s, the identical 2-story townhouses run in neat rows, hedged in by white fences, manicured grass and trees lining the sidewalks. Even the sounds and smells in the neighborhood can seem like a suburban cliche: wind chimes, children laughing, dogs barking, the jingle of bicycle chains, the echos of World Cup soccer on TV, and the sweet odor of dryer sheets and hair spray. Gardeners in golf carts with palm fronds hanging from the back scurry around the grid-shaped community. Public parking is plainly marked “VISITOR,” to designate residents from outsiders.

But the similarities to the American story are not all pleasant. Ewa Beach, a housing development in south Oahu, is “ground zero” for foreclosures on the island. Ewa Beach last month ranked No. 1 for foreclosures, with 53, or one for every 260 households, according to Realty Trac. To put the number in perspective, the national average is one per 400 households and Hawaii averages one for every 486 households. Of the 278 short sale listings currently on the market, 71 houses — or more than 25 percent — are in Ewa Beach.

“When you’re browsing through the listings as a Realtor, you see there’s a real concentration of short sales and bank-owned properties (in Ewa Beach),” said David Buck, a realtor and the broker in charge of Oahu operations for Hawaii Life, a real estate brokerage. “It’s the first place to go down.”

The Ewa Gentry subdivision makes up a significant portion of Ewa Beach. The master planned community’s association was started in 1988, and the development has grown to more than 6,800 homes. Houses tend to be more affordable than their urban counterparts because of their distance from downtown Honolulu. Morning commuters on their way downtown drive with the sun in their eyes. The same with the journey back. It makes prices less expensive.

Open fields of red dirt surround the dense suburb. Resting there are tired, abandoned tractors – a seeming symbol of the planned community that teemed with buyers in the early 2000s but petered out once the Great Recession set in. Construction stopped. Early home investors bought houses when the development was new and, for the most part, have cashed out and moved on. What’s left is primarily working class and military families. Many of those who bought houses in the mid-2000s were stuck with a depreciating home and could not sell for a profit.

Most recently, however, home values in the area have actually been rising. In 2009, the median Ewa Beach home value fell from $411,500 in 2008 to $345,000. The year-to-date median has risen to $360,000 in June, and in May to June alone, the median is $455,000.

But are residents feeling the lift yet? If anyone could identify recovery, it would be the families of Ewa Beach.

On its eastern side of Ewa Gentry is a grid of roads that share the street name Luahoana. One small area of four adjacent cul-de-sacs with 40 townhouses – of which at least three have seen foreclosure or short sales – offers a broad view of the recession. Many from the neighborhood have been insulated from the economic tumult. Some are just getting by. Others still are struggling to keep food on the table. None reported any sight of a recovery.

Interviews showed that military families, who make up a significant percentage of the community, are buffered from the economic downturn. But out of a dozen people interviewed, four were suffering, two so badly that they’d given up looking for jobs.

Many in the neighborhood weren’t even aware of nearby foreclosures, some perhaps because they had just moved in and others perhaps because the houses don’t stand out. There are a few for sale signs, but many of the troubled houses are being rented out. It makes the gravity of the foreclosure crisis visible largely through the listings — unless you talk with the residents.

Bankruptcy over foreclosure

The head of one household was so embarrassed by having to go into bankruptcy, not wanting others in the neighborhood to know, that Civil Beat granted him anonymity to make it possible for others to hear his family’s story. (Read our policy on anonymous sources).

Seven years after buying his 3-bedroom, 2.5-bathroom home for $250,000, the forklift driver at Costco father realized he, his wife, two kids, and a dog couldn’t keep up with daily expenses. It felt like the cost of living wouldn’t stop growing. Car maintenance seemed heftier. Gas, too.

College tuition fees didn’t help. One of their sons graduated from Campbell High School and went off to college on the mainland at Linfield, which costs more than $30,000 a year.

The final straw came when the mother, a state teacher’s aid, was hit by furloughs. Her husband said she lost 5 percent of her pay. A few years ago, the Hawaii natives applied to refinance their loans, but the bank rejected them.

That’s when the family decided to apply for bankruptcy under Chapter 13, which would allow them to save the house.

“It costs too much to live in Hawaii,” the head of the household said, matter of factly. “It’s just too hard live here.”

You wouldn’t be able to see the signs of trouble from the townhouse’s clean exterior. Inside the open garage hang yoga balls, bikes and other sporting equipment, like relics from better days.

It presents a challenging aspect of understanding the impacts of the recession: the pain isn’t immediately visible. Many of the foreclosed homes tuck away “for sale” signs and temporarily house renters. For those who are surviving on their current wages or just moved in, it’s easy to assume that everyone else is getting by.

Stopped looking for a job

Lorene Borreta and the six others who live in her house have given up looking for jobs. The five-adult, two-kid and one-dog household has rented a foreclosed house for two years and relies on Borreta’s social security, welfare, and her daughter’s husband’s truck driver salary. Though Borreta’s 22-year-old daughter, Kulei, is married, she and her husband choose to live with their own parents to save on rent money and support their son. In the hot afternoon, Borreta and her daughters sit around the living room and kitchen, watching TV and fanning themselves.

“(The recession) totally changed the world,” the 49-year-old retired food service worker says about the hunt for new jobs. “Even for jobs. I wanted to go back to work, but look. So I’m just sitting down and saying, ‘It’s OK.'”

To cut down on expenses, Borreta and her daughters are looking for a smaller house. Their current rent is $2100, and they’d like to find someplace for less than $2000. Competition for houses with help from welfare, however, has been fierce.

“There are a lot of other families looking for homes, too,” she says.

Military don’t feel downturn

Still, the majority of residents seem immune to the ups and downs of the economy. They’re 20-something military families who can use their housing allowances to buy or rent the townhouses, which are close to base. Unlike their civilian neighbors, these families can shop on the Navy base for cheaper food, cheaper gas and even catch the occasional free movie. Some can even receive a food stipend. One resident estimated that as many as 40 percent of residents held a job connected with the armed forces.

“I haven’t seen the effects of the down economy,” said Sean Zetooney, a chief petty officer in the U.S. Navy. “I get paid no matter what, so I’ve never had to worry.”

Zetooney, 28, fulfilled a lifelong dream and bought his three-bedroom house for $360,000 two and a half years ago, just before the recession. Even if he, his wife and his 1-year-old child haven’t felt the downturn personally, he’s aware of the suffering around him in what he calls a close community. He knows everyone on his block and can gravely point to three foreclosed houses around his property. His house value has gone down by about $30,000, but he’s confident it will recover.

“If I can stay here long enough, it should go back up,” said Zetooney, a California native, “but, joys of the military, you never know if you will.”

The majority of the neighborhood has somehow escaped the recession’s wrath primarily by means of the military. Of four residents who moved in within the past few months, three are with the military.

Even in prosperous years, the military has been a stabilizing force in Hawaii’s economy. The state’s 2007 population included 115,134 military and dependents, according to the most recent DBEDT report. But the neighborhood underscores its importance to Hawaii’s economy in years of famine.

One community, different neighbors

One aspect of the planned community is the set of covenants that regulates the community: “Neat and attractive” yards and landscapes. No loud music. Holiday decorations only during the appropriate seasons. Approved shades of paint.

But even in a regulated community, there are multiple economies. Even in Oahu’s hardest hit community, there are many residents who do not feel or see the pain. Others have given up hope. Perhaps the recovery is too slow to be discernible, but whether prospering or struggling, it hasn’t come to Ewa Beach yet. Living in the same place doesn’t mean residents have the same economic experience.

That’s American. It’s also human.