Ola Waianae I Ka Makani Kaiaulu.

This is a moolelo (story) about a Native Hawaiian community tormented by a storm of socio-political-economic oppression and disparately impacted by the very same overwhelming forces suffered by everyone who lives here in Hawaii with roots long enough to reach these bitter waters.

Locals know those forces all too well: Hawaii is the worst place in the country to make a living. Hawaii is the worst state to start a business. Hawaii is the worst place in the country for traffic. Hawaii is the state with the highest cost of living.     

What’s often sterilized from these wretched revelations are their physical manifestations, that is, the real world impact resulting from suffering the highest cost of living or spending years of your life stuck in traffic or balancing on the edge of poverty because your monthly pay barely covers your monthly rent. 

Following a disaster, media frenzies with imagery of civilization turned to ruin. The disaster is clearly shown for what it is. Because it’s important to know what it is. 

Waianae farming/crops along Waianae Valley Road. 19 nov 2016
Crops along Waianae Valley Road. The region struggles to sustain its culture and pride in the face of growing commercial exploitation and gentrification. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

So, then, why are our disasters covered up like frequent sweeps of the houseless/homeless? Why is the disaster of diasporic deracination celebrated as “ninth island” settlement? And why, oh why is the fallacy of the picture-perfect paradise still being sold at the disadvantage of the already sorely disadvantaged?

Because a homeless single mother sitting with her children on a picture-perfect beach, just picture-perfect steps from her makeshift shelter still looks like a picture-perfect beachgoer in picture-perfect paradise. A picture-perfect tragedy. 

Native Hawaiians comprise roughly one-third of the homeless population in Hawaii, making them one of the largest (if not the largest) group. The largest percentage of unsheltered Native Hawaiians on Oahu live in the moku (district) of Waianae, which also has the highest concentration of Native Hawaiians per capita on Oahu.       

Waianae moku isn’t the poorest place in Hawaii, but its people struggle in isolation and suffer disproportionately. With an area median income significantly less than the state’s overall, you’d think relief would fly in swiftly on the wings of justice; because the people of Waianae need good jobs, affordable housing, traffic alleviation, and access to education too.

But, that hasn’t happened. 

Instead, Waianae’s struggle to survive with a decent sense of dignity and pride in the face of imposed lows (low income and low employment) is constantly stifled by exploitation: as in the case of a Chinese luxury condo developer

Within a juxtaposition of people and place lies the single greatest threat to Waianae: gentrification.

Or maybe it’s some other large resort/subdivision developer seeking state and county approval with selling points featuring Waianae’s unemployment rate and the lack of alternative jobs; a sustainable source of neocolonial indentured servants and just the right-sounding kind of tragic data to make any unsustainable project sound divinely magnanimous. 

But, why?

Is it Waianae’s geographic isolation? Has Waianae essentially become the land that time forgot? Or is it the color of the people’s skin? Maybe it’s the people of Waianae that the rest of us forgot?

And maybe, just maybe, within this juxtaposition of people and place lies the single greatest threat to Waianae: gentrification. 

Gentrification “is a general term for the arrival of wealthier people in an existing urban district, a related increase in rents and property values, and changes in the district’s character and culture. The term is often used negatively, suggesting the displacement of poor communities by rich outsiders.”

The tide of gentrification doesn’t raise all ships. Certainly not the waa (canoes) Native Hawaiians have used to navigate their way through this socio-political-economic current. This tide drowns the economically vulnerable.

While the native sons and daughters of Waianae fight to keep their roots anchored in the soil of their ancestors, the world turns a blind eye to their cause, seemingly transfixed solely on the profitability of Waianae’s coastal beauty.

The Commodification Of Land

Waianae’s beaches certainly seem to be the selling point of the many multitudes of transplant-turned-vacation rental owner in the Waianae moku from Airbnb to VRBO. 

Perhaps, the sale of Waianae’s natural beauty was on a Chinese developer’s mind, when they created a corporation in Hawaii to then purchase 3 acres of land near Pokai Bay for the development and sale of 21 “middle income” homes in a community, whose native population would be ill-equipped to afford any of them.

The commodification of land in Hawaii, for development and resale, has undoubtedly led to our insanely high cost of living, which has resulted in a lower quality of life.

It also serves as a mechanism that displaces poorer communities, while simultaneously opening the floodgates to nonlocal settlers, who are advantaged and better able to afford the cost of living here, because they simply haven’t been subjected to it for generations.        

Waianae stands on the threshold of change. How we uplift or undermine the people of the community will speak volumes to the values — the culture — of Hawaii. Twenty years from now, will it be a sustainable cultural stronghold or an unsustainable tourist trap? 

This story is uninhibitedly non-fiction; it’s 5 percent chill, 10 percent traction, 15 percent grassroots community in action, 20 percent fight, 50 percent pain and 100 percent reason to remember the name: Waianae. 

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