In the midst of our politically charged time, when the venom flows on front pages and news flashes between POTUS and the Congress and even our solutions to civic problems generate more civic problems, it can be, well — fatiguing.

The biblical story of Babel comes to mind. In the myth the human desire to climb to the top and dethrone the gods a la “Game of Thrones” ends with a mess. The myth is trying to explain the origins of languages and hints at the perennial problem of how language unites but also divides — it creates tribal identity but also leads to tribal rivalry. The more we talk and engage in political speech, the more rivalry it seems to generate.

Poet Derek Walcott said we have to fall in love with the world in spite of history. But it is hard to love what you don’t stop to see. The pause button seems stuck or worn out in Hawaii.

But I remember in the not too distant past when it was natural to pause here, when natural events and seasonal time meant something. Neighbors would say: “The oama are running or the menpachi are in at the pier.” Or “we are going to pound mochi are you coming.”

All Saints and All Souls and Halloween are wrapped up with remembering that we all live by the light of those who lived just ahead of us. Like fading stars they give us enough light to find our way.

Ala Moana Beach with Kakaako Condominiums Development 0296.
Steel and glass highrises in Kakaako. But where is the sense of community? Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Hawaii was a multicultural melting pot where identity was not rivalry. When you lose something like a tooth your tongue is perpetually condemned to probe the void for what was once there.

Sometimes I ask myself was this gentler diversity an illusion created by unsophisticated minds or a kind of wisdom we have lost in our supposed sophistication. In Palama, where I grew up in the 1950s, in a single day you would pass through a rainbow of cultural worlds that seem to hang together like the complexity of a coral reef. In a single day you could watch a fighting chicken match with a Filipino friend in the morning or play slack-key guitar with your Hawaiian neighbor in the afternoon and watch a samurai movie with Kinosuke Nakamura at night. We shared geography and also a richly textured world with beauty and the pause button.

When the blustery winds would come in the spring we would make our own kites and take to the streets. When the poinciana trees exploded with their red blossoms we made Popeye the Sailor Man pipes with their buds. Nature seemed real and generous, sending us showers of mangos which we turned into mango pickle and mango seed. With the excess we had rotten mango fights. Poet John Keats would certainly have had to write an ode to mangos if he lived here.

At our local saimin stand the Shirabe sisters actually made their own noodles right there in the shop and cooked their barbecue sticks on an open charcoal fire. We felt the heat and breathed the smoke.

Unhealthy? Probably, but it was a richly textured world that no 3-D program or flat screen could ever reproduce. And the people, they mattered and so did their names: Cariagas, Kipapas, Fukumitsus, Tanakas, Kims, Bagas. Different cultures but all family.

A Local Diaspora

Someone said recently if you want to see the American dream, go to Denmark. I would counter just remember who we were just a few decades ago.

I know eventually all “things fall apart” as Chinua Achebe suggests, and they did here in Honolulu and it did for me in Palama. It was politics, specifically statehood, money and Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty that literally brought the bulldozers and sledge hammer to this beautiful world to gentrify Palama under the banner of removing substandard housing.

So we were sent into diaspora: some to the Ewa plains, some to Kaneohe, some to Pearl City. No one was asked. It was a plan concocted by central planners, politicians and bankers in fulfillment of some conception of what a “beautiful neighborhood” would be. Higher densities, higher rents, more money for investors — a simple logic.

Kakaako’s architecture does not say “touch me” but “stay away.”

Looking at Kakaako now with its massive silvery plate steel and glass surfaces, I think I understand what they conceived beauty to be — anonymity, the human image erased and dwarfed by the sheer immensity of the buildings. The smooth reflective façade of the buildings reveal nothing. They seem to stop the eye and the gaze. There are no textures to invite curiosity, they remind me of the dark glasses I put on when I feel vulnerable and don’t want to be seen.

It is an architecture that does not say “touch me” but “stay away.” A robot would be at home here. To decide something is to “kill something” that is what the suffix “cide” means.

Are we burying our memory and our humanity and our “Hawaii” and handing on to our children a life and a world as smooth as Teflon with no abrasive or rough surfaces where they can watch life on screens, occupy Disney and Marvel universes but never occupy their own lives?

I feel sympathy with the communities of Kahuku and Waimanalo, not because I have some objective standard for what is right but because I have experienced what it is was like to have “the invisible hand” of capital wield with its velvet glove the hammer it calls “progress.”

In the Native Hawaiian movement I sense a deep intuition that forgetting our place in nature, and the invisible web of meanings and relationships that delicately transforms a crowd into a community will make it less likely that we will love the world and thereby save it. The revival of place names and Hawaiian poetry tells us: stay close to the earth, be careful of towers with or without blades and hit the pause button to notice a flower or the face of a loved one.

We need awe and politics. The towers can wait.

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Column lengths should be no more than 800 words and we need a current photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.

About the Author