For some Kalihi residents, the two-acre stretch of land tucked down a small road off School Street is an ideal place to crack open a Heineken and unwind after work. But most people on Oahu have likely never heard of Loi Kalo Mini Park.
For years, the park’s rich historical past sat buried, unknown to most, as layers of invasive California grass grew to conceal natural springs that spout water from the park to Kapalama Canal.
At least until Robert Silva began his work there two years ago.
Every Monday at 6:30 am, Silva, an an automotive instructor at Honolulu Community College, arrives at the park, machete, chainsaw, or weed whacker in hand. He’s working to clear the weeds and create a loi kalo, the Hawaiian term for taro patch.
“Robert’s been just doing this organically on his own, that’s just Robert,” said Billie Lueder, a Honolulu Community College spokeswoman. “It’s pretty incredible.”
A number of caretakers have adopted and abandoned the park over the years. The city’s Board of Water Supply owns the park, but Silva is the land’s unofficial steward.
Initially, Silva spent most of his time removing trash, including used needles and smashed beer bottles. Now his time is spent knee high and sometimes waist deep in water, machete in hand, cutting away at the California grass and planting varieties of taro he brings from another taro patch he maintains in East Oahu.
“It’s more meditation to me than work,” Silva said.
Cultivating taro, a staple food in ancient Hawaii, and other Native Hawaiian edible and medicinal plants holds cultural significance for Silva, who is Native Hawaiian.
“The kalo plant, to the Hawaiians, is part of our genealogy,” said Mark Alapaki Luke, a Hawaiian Studies professor at Honolulu Community College and taro farmer.
According to Hawaiian mythology, before birthing the first human — or first Hawaiian human, depending on interpretation — Hawaiian gods Hoohokukalani and Wakea had a stillborn child, which they planted in the earth. From that burial site grew a taro plant.
“If you care for your elder ancestor, in return your ancestor will feed you,” Luke said.
Loi Kalo Mini Park was once part of a vast network of taro patches that covered Kapalama. The area toward the mountain was called Niuhelewai after a now-diverted stream that was fed by a collection of springs in the area. Water from the springs now flow directly to the ocean through Kapalama Canal.
“We’re in a wetlands that has been filled in,” said Luke, sitting in his office at Honolulu Community College in Iwilei, about a mile down Kapalama Canal from the park.
Before it was a college, the 26-acre campus once hosted 45 taro patches, Luke said.
According to oral histories, Hawaiian royalty once gathered at Niuhelewai for healing ceremonies. It was home to Haumea, the Hawaiian goddess of fertility and childbirth.
“It’s an amazing feature if you think about it,” said Councilman Joey Manahan, who represents Kalihi. “It’s a natural spring and it’s in the middle of the urban core.”
Two decades ago, The Liliuokalani Trust, a foundation that aids Native Hawaiians through the trust of the late Queen Liliuokalani, started work to resolve disputes between residents of Kalihi’s various public housing complexes.
Together, participants from the various housing complexes began to discuss the need for taro, a nutritious and culturally important food.
The group and organization began work similar to what Silva is doing today, clearing the bush at Loi Kalo Park and planting taro. More Kalihi residents got involved and formed the Friends of Loi Kalo Park group.
The community group kept up the work for about a decade but eventually disbanded.
“It’s life. People move, they get busy, or they get older,” Luke said.
So the park, known to locals as Fat Man’s Pond, sat orphaned and overgrown until Silva arrived.
During the school year, about 20 college students attend community work days that Silva hosts every first Saturday of the month from 8 a.m. to noon.
In the summer months, Silva said he has a hard time getting volunteers to attend workdays. Last month, only four volunteers showed up along with a crew of city employees.
“If nobody’s going to come, I don’t really care,” Silva said. “But I’m still going to come.”
To cultivate his own taro patch, Silva’s grandfather ran a pipe from the family’s washing machine to his garden. He let the soapy water drain from the machine and flow through his wetland taro patch.
For many Hawaiians, growing taro is still a part of life.
“I love lois,” Silva said when asked why he commits his time and energy to the park.
He said it’s also an issue of sustainability and food security in an island chain that imports almost 90 percent of its food supply, according to the State Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.
“We can grow a little bit of food, especially taro, in an urban environment,” said Luke, who started a garden at Honolulu Community College.
“(It’s) not going to make a huge difference but if more people get involved, the movement can grow.”
Taro, usually pounded into poi, made up 60 to 70 percent of the carbohydrates in the diets of Native Hawaiians, said Al Kealii Chock, an ethnobotany professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Taro patches once covered valleys on each island, Chock said. The numbers dwindled as plantation owners diverted water to fields of pineapple and sugar.
Community workdays are every first Saturday of the month starting at 8 a.m. at 1243 Loi Kalo Place. Bring gloves, a water bottle, and be ready to work.
Silva’s hopes one day each ahupuaa, a land division that stretches from the mountain to the ocean, on Oahu has a taro patch.
He’s considered forming a nonprofit to fulfill that mission. But he prefers to spend his time knee deep in a loi, not filing paperwork in an office.
Some local government officials applaud Silva’s work.
“The work that Robert is doing right now is wonderful,” said Manahan, who attended a Saturday workday at the park. “(He’s) really taken ownership, not just initiative but ownership.”
The lack of a formal agreement with the city has left Silva worried he may get kicked out of the park at some point.
“I don’t know if the City and County is going to kick me out once I make it nice,” Silva said.
Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s administration has big plans for the Kapalama Canal Catalytic Project, with hopes of livening up the industrial area. It’s not clear whether the park will be included in those plans. The city will hold a public meeting to discuss the project at some point between October and December.
Kathleen Elliott-Pahinui, a Board of Water Supply spokeswoman said the agency plans to partner with a private organization spruce up the park. She also said the agency has asked a local planning company, Townscape, to create a plan for the park “that embraces the site’s natural and cultural features.”
To avoid liability and maintenance issues, the parks department has a policy against planting fruit trees and edible plants in parks. The plants invite bugs, require clean up, and can cause conflict among people who want to keep the fruit.
But parks department spokesman Nathan Serota said the department would consider Silva’s plans for a taro patch if Silva follows city procedures.
“If someone wants to do something beneficial to the community in the park we certainly would want to help with that,” he said. “We still have to follow protocol and make sure he knows of our procedures.”
Silva said he hopes Honolulu Community College will play a role in caring for the park. Even if the college decides to formally adopt the park, Lueder said the park’s revitalization hinges on an individual’s commitment to the project.
“If Robert were to leave the college, I don’t know who on this campus would take it over,” she said. “It always comes down to a person, somebody who care so much for a project. It takes a person who can mobilize people.”