Myrna Abang loved riding the flumes of Ewa Plantation Co. She and her friends would splash and laugh down the water line, originally meant to irrigate sugar fields and move the stalks throughout the plantation.
“It tugs at our heartstrings when we remember how we grew up,” Abang says. Most of her life was spent on the plantation and its surrounding residential villages.
When she was growing up in the ’60s, she remembers how her family never had to lock their doors. She would play in the streets, waiting for her parents’ call for dinner time. Her neighborhood telephone book was only four pages long.
Ewa looks a lot different now. Gone are the 11,000 acres of sugarcane, replaced by residential complexes, mini-malls and the local Zippy’s restaurant. It feels different too.
Time and the arrival of new residents has strained the sense of community that once held this former sugar town together, bonded by memories of Ewa’s unique agricultural history.
‘We Came From This Place’
The Ewa Plantation Co. was its own self-contained community. Back then, they called the area Honouliuli. Most of the land was covered in sugar cane fields, but the town along Renton Road flourished. The 2-mile stretch hosted the local elementary school, grocery store and clubhouse right next to the company’s offices and Manager’s Mansion.
Surrounding Renton Road were the residential villages the company provided for its plantation workers. Fernandez, Tenney and Varona are just some of the villages, each acting as its own cultural bubble. Abang grew up in “Korean Camp,” although she notes that most of her neighbors were Filipino immigrants, like her family.
Despite living in different clusters, the laborers often congregated on Renton Road. Abang recalls the way everyone would come together for public events, like their annual Christmas parade or town carnival. She says that Ewa Villages had everything you would need.
“You could tell that people really cared and it started with the company taking care of us,” Abang says.
Ewa Plantation Co. was ahead of its time. With its first harvest in 1892, the company quickly became the highest-producing plantation in Hawaii. It was the first to yield 10 tons of sugar per acre, averaging over 61,000 tons per year. It was the first to have a fully mechanized harvesting operation and the only mill to have a soda water bottling plant, making sweet drinks with their own sugar.
In partnership with The Queen’s Medical Center, they launched the Ewa Health Center in 1935. At the time, the Ewa Health Center was a leader in plantation medicine, changing laborer diets and improving health outcomes for the workers’ children. The Tenney Gymnasium was one to envy with multiple courts, pools and recreational activities for tenants.
The company was often lauded as a “new kind of plantation” for providing such amenities for workers and their families. The “little things” like that made growing up on the plantation special for Abang and what stands out to her, even today.
When the company was bought out by the Waipahu-based Oahu Sugar Co. in 1971, the closure was felt by many who spent their whole lives on the plantation. Abang remembers many of the families she grew up with moving to different parts of Oahu, opening the door for a new wave of residents to the former sugar town.
She remembers riding the school bus to her alma mater, James Campbell High School, and seeing all the new homes and faces in her changing community.
“There was just a boom of kids and I don’t think they identified or appreciated that we came from this place that existed before them,” Abang says.
‘A Community In Transition’
The City and County of Honolulu acquired Ewa Villages after the plantation’s land lease expired in the early ’80s. Plans for a “Second City” on the Westside were already underway, so officials needed something that would address the population boom coming to the Ewa region.
With the need for affordable housing also growing, the Honolulu City Council, along with the now-defunct Department of Housing and Community Development, launched the Ewa Villages Project in 1991. They sought to revitalize the area by fixing up the existing structures and offering them back to plantation families and newcomers to purchase.
That’s when Carolyn Weygan-Hildebrand moved there with her family from Honolulu. She dreamed of a starter home with her husband and daughter, a place where she could have pets and get into gardening. But she didn’t realize how much the Ewa Villages residents had gone through.
“There was a lot of tension because this was a community in transition,” Weygan-Hildebrand says.
She remembers that there was a lot of anger among residents. “Tenants of record” would have to move out during restorations and decide whether they were going to buy the houses from the government or live somewhere else. She recalls that even though there were public meetings for input, there wasn’t enough community building.
She started learning more about her new home because of her interest in plantation history and her roots in the Philippines. She started facilitating public meetings for former plantation workers and creating events like heritage walks and free workshops.
Today, she works with the newly founded Ewa Villages Historical Society to preserve and share the stories of the former plantation town. The organization’s initial focus is on rehabilitating the Manager’s Mansion and putting it to community use.
Currently, the Mansion is managed by the Honolulu Department of Land Management, which closed the structure in 2004 when multiple safety hazards, like termite damage and lead paint, made it hard to use the building.
The historical society was hoping to use the space as a museum and there was talk of other groups wanting to make it into a cafe or a neighborhood association office. But the city said in an emailed statement that there are “no current plans to improve or repurpose the Manager’s Mansion and/or its site, and no funding source is presently identified to do so.”
Despite the lack of financial support from the city, Weygan-Hildebrand feels there needs to be more community building in Ewa today. It’s been a challenge for her historical society to get newcomers to care about the history of the Ewa Villages, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“They can learn, but they need to be inspired and want to engage,” Weygan-Hildebrand says.
She believes that a community is more than just bricks and mortar, but the shared values and connections that can be forged in a place.
“We can’t replicate the past, but what are some of those community characteristics that we can bring into the future?” Weygan-Hildebrand asks.
‘A Sense Of Community’
Al Simbahon, who is coordinating an event to celebrate 130 years of the Ewa Plantation, feels that change was inevitable for Ewa.
“When you talk about developers, they have to fix up Ewa to make it more attractive,” Simbahon says.
In the plantation days, people were moving to Ewa to work there. Now it seems people are moving because it is a more affordable option than Honolulu.
Ewa’s population climbed from the 1960s to early 2000s, leveling off at over 14,000 residents in the zip code. Census data shows that over the last decade, Ewa Village’s population count has grown by almost 1,000 from 2010, while other parts of Ewa, like Ocean Pointe, have almost doubled.
And while the price of homes continues to climb in Hawaii overall, the 2019 median value of houses in Ewa ranges from $568,300 to $665,200. Median home prices for Oahu topped $1 million last month.
Median gross rent between 2015-2019 in Ewa Villages is one of the lowest islandwide at $1,082, compared to $1,491 in Urban Honolulu. With the median value of housing in Honolulu at $678,200 in 2019, dollars seem to go further in Ewa, where some can afford newer and bigger properties.
Kim Andrews needed a home with a bedroom and bathroom on the first floor for her dad. His health was declining and they wanted something that would accommodate him quickly. When they were looking to move from Hickham Air Force Base in 2018, all of the options that were in their price range were in Ewa.
“At the time, we told our Realtor it didn’t matter where on the island. We just needed to find something fast,” Andrews says.
After looking at a couple of homes, they decided on one in Huelani, a planned community in Ewa Gentry. While her husband would be away on assignment as a contractor for the Navy, she felt safe in her community.
Andrews says her family loves living in Ewa because of the convenience. The hospital, malls and restaurants she frequents are either in Ewa or Kapolei, without much hassle. But she also sees hotels popping up and more subdivisions being developed, which she believes will drive up the cost in the area.
“I do understand this area is cheaper than other parts, but for how long?” Andrews asks.
As for her sense of community in Ewa, she feels like it’s hard for anyone to build those connections these days. She doesn’t see much of her neighbors, especially as a full-time caretaker to her father and overseeing the busy lives of her kids. Andrews notes that it was easier to meet people when they lived on base, at events and in the grocery store. They looked out for each other.
And this is what Abang wants to see return to Ewa Villages — that feeling of community. When she drives to work down Renton Road, she delights in seeing the Ewa Green Wall because it acts as a visual cue of her childhood and what the place meant to thousands of people.
“How can I explain the joy? There was just a true sense of community here,” Abang says.
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