- Special Projects
Almost a century ago, Kakaako, with its dusty streets and dilapidated houses, seemed to be asleep, just awakening to the fact that business was encroaching on its boundaries.
An undergrad at the University of Hawaii at the time — sometime in the late 1920s or early 1930s — wrote about life in Kakaako, describing it in a student essay as having a mix of residences and businesses. Warehouses were the biggest businesses in the area at the time, but their main branches were situated outside of Kakaako, so there was little fear of residents being ousted.
Six excerpts of papers written over the decades by former University of Hawaii students, some of whom lived in the neighborhood, were read aloud by community members during a “Papers in the Park” walk story on Sunday at Mother Waldron Park. Led by 88 Block Walks and Kakaako: Our Kuleana, about 20 people listened to snapshots of what life was like in the neighborhood between the 1920s to the 1970s.
This was the fourth walk story held by 88 Block Walks. The purpose was to create a new way of understanding the neighborhood, so people can feel more connected to it, said Adele Balderston, creator of 88 Block Walks, which had its first walk story in 2014. (The group takes its name from the 88 blocks that are said to make up Kakaako.)
“The thing that I always try to tell people when I talk about the tours is a place is much more than a built environment,” she said. “So all of the buildings will come and go. It’s always changing. What remains is the stories.”
In the 1940s, Kakaako was developing industrially, educationally and morally, according to an excerpt read by Sean Shodahl, co-founder of the nonprofit Interisland Terminal.
It used to be a place notorious for its stories of gangsters and hoodlums, spiking fear and hate by people who lived elsewhere. But those stories were disappearing and everything was changing to meet the progress of civilization.
The excerpt read by Shodahl said that Kewalo Basin was dredged about 15 years earlier and so the neighborhood was filled with coral and sand. Houses were scattered here and there, and many didn’t have a coat of paint and few had garages.
In the late 1940s, what was once purely residential was becoming an area for business, according to an excerpt read by Daniel Kelin II, director of drama education with the Honolulu Theatre for Youth. Tenements were replaced by houses and apartments, which were being replaced by businesses, and as residents became better educated or grew in wealth, they moved to other neighborhoods.
Kakaako was a poor district, but for a student who wrote about living there, that didn’t stop residents from calling the place home and feeling a sense of community.
“A friend once said no matter how old and dilapidated his home may be, he always comes back to it,” according to an excerpt from a paper written in 1948 that was read by Laurie Au, a Kakaako resident and a leader of Islander Institute. “He doesn’t go to those stately mansions but to his humble home in Kakaako. Home sweet home.”
The writer lived in a camp – a neighborhood of residences where everyone paid rent to the same landlord – with 12 other families, all of whom were either of Japanese or Okinawan descent.
Many belonged to the lower socio-economic group and lived comfortably on a day-to-day basis. Of the 57 people living there, 33 worked as carpenters, cannery workers, laundry workers, mechanics, office workers, homeworkers and dressmakers, among other fields.
They didn’t seem to care much about education but rather finding work as soon as possible to support the family.
The community was close, sharing food with each other, which was typical in other communities where Japanese are numerous, and the residents became especially tight-knit during World War II.
As time went on, the neighborhood shifted from comprising residents mostly of Japanese descent to residents that were Hawaiian, Portuguese and Filipino, according to an excerpt from a paper written in the mid-1950s that was read by Ryan Tam, Ala Moana-Kakaako neighborhood board chairman.
Houses were continued to be described as deteriorated, and therefore cheap – rentals ranged from $8 to $22 a month. In one set of cottages, some residents lived in residences split into two, with a shared bathroom, kitchen and porch.
Fast forward to the early 1970s and the area has transformed into an industrial area where modern businesses are not located, according to one of the excerpts read by Josh Tengan, a project manager at the bookstore Na Mea Hawaii.
The area was home to suppliers and fabricators of heavy industrial equipment, radio stations, real estate developers, insurance companies and many other businesses.
“Scattered here and there are residential quarters that take the form of isolated ethnic camps that exist today as vestiges of a bygone area,” said the excerpt read by Tengan.
Large groups of tenants were moving out, and although a smaller number of tenants were moving in, they knew there might soon come a time for them to move out again.
Kakaako had passed its peak as a place where many people lived. Pohukaina Elementary School had empty classrooms and some grades were taught together due to the small number of students attending, the excerpt said.
The student essays came from the university’s Romanzo Adams Social Research Laboratory collection, which houses several thousand papers written between the 1920s and 1970s, said Sherman Seki, a library assistant. He said the archive had about 10 papers that were written about Kakaako.
Heidi Meeker, 63, has lived in Kakaako for 23 years and was drawn to the walk story because she was curious about the source material. She said the predominance of Japanese residents living in Kakaako stood out to her during the event.
Kelin, one of the readers, said he found interacting with the history of the place in the form of a walk story to be more beneficial than picking up a book and reading about it.
“It’s just more interesting to visualize a place and a sense of history through interaction with it,” he said.