In the middle of the economic collapse, I found myself at a Honolulu party. It was 2009, not long after the holidays — that time of year when everyone sensibly keeps their head down and avoids keeping their resolutions.
But if you can recall how bad it was in those days, the world was frozen in panic. Many of us in the middle class lost 40 percent of the value in our stocks, 401Ks, and college funds in a month.
So maybe you can understand why, in 2009, someone wanted to hurl open the French doors, order tons of pricey pupus, and pop the corks on a case of Moet et Chandon.
You didn’t have quite the same impulse?
Nauru tower, left, and other developments and condominiums in Kakaako.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Neither did my wife and I, but these folks at the party were British, or quasi-Brits. They know something about carrying on when the Titanic is going down.
I found myself around 10 p.m. — which is midnight for most of us in the tropics — chatting with a nice lady with an accent I couldn’t place. The host was her friend, not from Honolulu, but Hong Kong and London. The lady explained that she was stuck here in Hawaii.
How so? I asked, thinking there are worse fates.
She explained that in the crash they’d had to rent out their places in Europe and Asia, and now were being forced to “camp out” in Makaha at their golf condo.
Hearing this several other partygoers chimed in that their circumstances were pretty much identical. At this point it dawned on us that the host had thrown a pity party, for the upper crust.
The kind of neighborhood that goes up like this, instantly, is different where most of us grew up. Even if you were in the military and moving frequently, you still arrived in a community that had been there for awhile.
There were nods of recognition when the bewildered lady told the group she woke up every morning in her Makaha condo and looked at the enormous sea view outside her window and wondered what she would do with her day. “I feel like such a prisoner,” she said.
The point here isn’t to draw some F. Scott Fitzgerald-like distinction between the rich and the rest of us, but to think about what the reshaping of our urban life might translate into from a human standpoint. Who will our neighbors be? Will they be good ones? Will they care about what came before them?
In the Sunday paper last week the real estate notices showed a long list of apartments sold, all in a single day, down Ala Moana Way. We’re talking about a hundred new neighbors.
The kind of neighborhood that goes up like this, instantly, is different from where most of us grew up. Even if you were in the military and moving frequently, you still arrived in a community that had been there for awhile.
If you were in a stable middle-class situation, you had the American Dream in which people, old and young, got to know each other with families interacting over the decades, recipes and kittens being exchanged over the backyard fence.
Now imagine a glass tower with no one in it.
One day the interior decorators arrive with the glamorous stuff of dreams. A few weeks later, the advance people — real estate agents and building managers — come in to detail and prep the staging for the lucky owners. There’s a fruit basket and champagne on the glass table in front of the million dollar view.
Finally the door opens and in walks the chosen ones.
This is not the Welcome Wagon of the 1950s, for those of you who remember such things. But it is the ritual of arrival for the new urban luxury developments going up around the world.
As it happened, a couple of years ago I was invited to another party in the same Honolulu neighborhood, during Christmas week. The location was one of the older Gold Coast towers that were built near Diamond Head in the 1960s, before an uproar stopped a planned mega-development that would’ve gone all the way to Black Point.
The hostess had inherited the condo when her mother passed away, and wasn’t planning on keeping it, although the views were gorgeous.
Near midnight she steered us out onto her side terrace and pointed to the adjoining tower. It was identical. And it was completely dark — 26 floors of unoccupied sea-view luxury apartments.
“Amazing, isn’t it,” she asked, “that they can afford to only use their condos for one week a year, and never at Christmas? Who are these people?”
A good question. We’ll find out the answer — or not — as our new neighbors arrive and the next decade of development unfolds.
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Don Wallace's most recent book is "The French House: An American Family, a Ruined Maison, and the Village that Restored Them All" (Sourcebooks, 2014) and he wrote the documentary film "Those Who Came Before: The Musical Journey of Eddie Kamae." A longtime magazine editor, he was an urban pioneer in New York City’s Chelsea district and involved in the creation of the internationally celebrated Chelsea High Line. He lives in Honolulu.