Two incidents in Hawaii Kai show how much that neighborhood, and by extension the rest of Honolulu, is changing. They also show how little most of us understand about these changes.

One was the protest of the closing of Foodland Supermarket in Hawaii Kai’s Koko Marina Shopping Center.

The other was the Koko Marina Starbucks’ recent decision to offer an unchanging, semi-secret bathroom access code that is only for regulars.

On the surface both seem trivial — small potatoes, examples of well-off folks out there on the tip of east Oahu who have nothing better to do than making a fuss over nothing.

So how are these seemingly small things in fact big ones? It’s about culture, stereotypes and out-of-date imaginations.

Hawaii Kai construction.  8 april 2105.  photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

A new apartment building under construction in Hawaii Kai has caused controversy among residents.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The Supermarket Protest

A few years ago the Foodland supermarket in Koko Marina lost its lease in a bidding war against Walgreens. Soon after the announcement and even after all the interested parties, including Foodland’s CEO, said it was a done deal, Hawaii Kai people organized protests.

Demonstrators with picket signs marched on Lunalilo Home Road wearing T-shirts saying, “Save Our Foodland.” Three hundred people showed up at a town meeting to protest the closing. 

“Hawaii Kai is becoming a food desert,” one of these protestors said.

A food desert? Come on now. 

“Food desert” is a term that poor people living in hardcore inner city neighborhoods like Chicago’s West Side or the South Bronx use when they demonstrate against their own supermarket closings.

It’s easy to make fun of the Hawaii Kai protestors as a spoiled rich folks’ pity party. Easy but wrong.   

Drug deals on the corner, bad schools, gang violence, poor health and medical care, abandoned building, and now this: a long bus ride just to buy decent food for our kids.  Another sign that no one cares about our neighborhood.

Using the term food desert seems pretty crass and insensitive for people living in Hawaii Kai, Hawaii’s second richest zip code with a Safeway and Costco nearby and more than enough cars to get there, to compare themselves with the urban poor.  It sounds like false martyrdom — people using the language of mean street to describe the scene on easy street. 

So it’s easy to make fun of the Hawaii Kai protestors as a spoiled rich folks’ pity party. Easy but wrong.   

The demonstrators’ words may have been out of place, but their sentiments and actions showed something important that was occurring not just in Hawaii Kai but also in Honolulu as a whole. For now let’s call these significant developments place, culture, and identity.

Before we go there, though, it’s necessary to add the bathroom code issue to the mix.

Double-Barreled Bathroom Access Codes

I spend a lot of time schmoozing and reading at the Koko Marina Starbucks.  I am clearly a regular.  A few weeks ago I asked one of the baristas for the bathroom access code, which normally changes every couple of days or so.

“Just a second,” she said quietly and handed me a very small piece of paper with some numbers on it. “This is a permanent code that we’re giving only to regular customers.” 

Outsiders still have to interrupt a possibly desperate trip to the bathroom in order to ask a barista for the ever-changing code.  Me, I can a simply make a beeline when every second counts. 

The Hawaii Kai incidents are forms of neighborhood cultural behavior.  Because that behavior differs from more typical images of Honolulu neighborhood culture, it is easy to ignore or trivialize them.

When I taught at the University of Hawaii, my students used to wise-ass chuckle when I told them that I lived in Hawaii Kai.  Yeah yeah, that’s where the rich haoles like you live. 

At first I used to challenge them with the facts.  Hawaii Kai had a higher percentage of haoles than Oahu as a whole, but haoles were still well in the minority.  The area as a whole was well off, but part of Hawaii Kai looked and felt like those downhome built-in-the-’60s neighborhoods like Pearl City. 

Koko Marina Starbucks has become a hangout with enough regulars to warrant a special access code.   

I even tried the ultimate.   I told them that both my kids went to public schools, Hahaione to Niu Intermediate to Kaiser.

The students never seemed convinced.  They saw Hawaii Kai not as a neighborhood like Kalihi, Pearl City or Kaimuki but rather as some kind of new, amorphous land mass inhabited by one-dimensional outsiders.

My students had pre-conceived notions about Hawaii Kai.  These notions kept them from looking any further.  In their minds there was nothing to know.

And for a time that’s at least a little bit close to what Hawaii Kai was.  Koko Marina was geared as much to tourists as it was to folks living nearby.  People in the neighborhood had few places to shop and no places to gather and talk story.  All in all, Hawaii Kai was a pretty amorphous site.

But until it closed, Hawaii Kai Foodland was there in those early days and lasted for close to 50 years in the same location.  Until it shut its doors, that supermarket was the sole Koko Marina survivor from the olden days.

Finding Meaning in Hawaii Kai

So what do the supermarket protest and the bathroom code say about Hawaii Kai and peoples’ restricted understanding of culture?  Well, three things.

First, Hawaii Kai is now an old community.  Sure, it is not as old as the others people usually think of when they imagine Oahu neighborhoods, but much of Hawaii Kai is now close to a half-century-old.  Old communities — think of what your parents or grandparents told you about the neighborhoods they grew up in — develop a sense of place.

UH’s Center for Oral History has a marvelous set of interviews with old timers who lived in Waikiki before it became the center of tourism.  They talk about how they much they missed the old Waikiki places and how bewildered they feel wandering the area now that these places were gone.  One of these places was in fact a Waikiki supermarket.  Places triggered memories.

People protested the Foodland closing because it was more than a supermarket.  As the demonstrators’ T-shirts said, Foodland had become “our” supermarket, a neighborhood marker and a source of local identity that transcended selling groceries. 

What’s more, that marker was to be replaced by an interloper, Walgreens, part of a chain that was new to Oahu.  Many of the protestors explicitly said that they were going to boycott that new, lease-stealing outsider.

Second, as the move to dual access codes showed, Hawaii Kai now has gathering places. Koko Marina Starbucks has become a hangout with enough regulars to warrant a special access code.   

Maunalua Bay Hawaii Kai

Maunalua Bay in Hawaii Kai where the sunset is one thing that doesn’t change.

Patti Epler/Civil Beat

The supermarket triggered neighborhood memories, and the Starbucks gathering place gave people a setting to meet and talk story.  Such stories are part of the social glue that forms communities. All in all, these are displays a neighborhood culture.

Hawaii Kai looks different from most other neighborhoods. It certainly is wealthier (median family income is $108,000 compared to about $73,000 for Oahu as a whole). It is also whiter though not nearly as much as my students imagined (30 percent haole compared to 20 percent for the island overall).

Nevertheless, Hawaii Kai now has the same kind of getting-together memories as a favorite surf spot, or your favorite shave ice store in small kid time, or Kuni Dry Goods, or the end of the trolley line at the top of the hill in Kaimuki.   

Hawaii Kai’s powerful places look different but don’t feel different to the people who live there.

Third, and most important, the Hawaii Kai incidents remind us of how misleading and out of date our images of neighborhoods are.

Peoples’ images of Honolulu’s neighborhoods commonly change much more slowly than reality. That’s a problem here because it fixates us on the past and ignores the present.  It misses the changes and isolates us from others. 

The gap between the stereotypes and reality creates a false sense of nostalgia and a narrow, harmful view of this place.

Newer neighborhoods? “Hey, no culture there.”

“How do you know this?” 

“I just do.”

Because of this focus on stability and the past, so many people have no idea what to make of new communities like Ewa, Kapolei, and Kakaako. 

Both of these places look more like 21st Century versions of Hawaii Kai than they do the older parts of Oahu.  They will never have any history of corner mom and pop shave ice stores.  That means that neither of them fit into the common image what of Honolulu’s “real” neighborhoods are like. But those places, along with Kakaako, which is a story in itself, are the future.

There are no nostalgic songs about Hawaii Kai or Kapolei.  There are no State of Hawaii cultural marker signs saying, “Safeway — Kapolei’s first supermarket.”

Those absences don’t indicate a lack of culture.  Instead they indicate a conventional, restrictive and misleading idea of what culture — and consequently what living in a diverse furiously changing island — is all about. 

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