Is This How We Want Our Honolulu To Grow? - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

M. Edward Weidenbach

M. Edward Weidenbach is a former curator and historian for the Battleship Missouri Memorial and author of “The Airman’s Club and Other Remembrances.”

Demolition has once again come to the heart of Keeaumoku Street. Very soon The Park at Keeaumoku will tower 400 feet over this low-key, low-rise neighborhood.

Opinion article badge

I arrived in 1974. For $12, I spent my first night at the 11-story Biltmore Hotel, built in 1959, the first high-rise in Waikiki. Later that year I watched the implosion bring her down to make way for the 42-story Hyatt Regency Waikiki.

I spent my last 52 cents on chili-rice from the snack shop by the beach. The next morning I joined other day-labor hopefuls at “Checkers & Pogos” in Kakaako. For eight hours of work, we earned $14.70, paid daily, unloading shipping containers and laboring at all kinds of small homegrown businesses all over Kakaako, Kapalama and Kalihi.

I moved to a rooming house on Beretania just down the street from Taniguchi Market. Monthly rent was $85. Back then I could get by on what little I earned.

My first full-time job was night-shift at a photo lab hidden among the bars and bistros along Keeaumoku Street, where twin towers will soon break ground.

We took our break at Diner’s Drive-In, where the Walmart parking lot is today. My co-worker introduced me to Kalua Pig & Cabbage, with ketchup. Sometimes we played Space Invader before heading back to work.

Up the block at Tanabe’s Superette, I had my first lau-lau, poke, and Spam musubi. Down at the bottom of the block was C.S. Wo’s furniture store with its little clock tower. In between and all around the area were small local businesses, the kind that built dreams and supported families, the kind where a new kid in town could get a fresh start.

Pig Pens Where Walmart Now Stands

Long before I came to town, long before there was a Diner’s Drive-In, there was a rice mill with attached workers’ quarters, a separate kitchen and a few pig pens nearby where the Walmart parking lot is today. The mill was powered by an elevated water flume that ran down from an artesian well on King Street between the Toyo Macaroni Factory and a “moving picture” theater.

At that time, Keeaumoku ended at King Street, Kapiolani Boulevard didn’t yet exist and Sheridan continued all the way down to the Ala Moana coastal road.

In those days, much of the area makai of King Street was lowland bordering wetlands, used to grow taro and rice, and there were fish and duck ponds, and banana groves and vegetable plots, and farmers and their families in small single dwellings or two and three unit row-houses, living determined, fragile lives.

Aerial view of Kakaako condominiums.
Kakaako is home to ever more high-rises. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

In 1906, Massachusetts transplant Lucius E. Pinkham, president of the Territorial Board of Health, proposed reclamation of the Waikiki District. Using sanitation as justification, lands were acquired, tenants removed, dwellings destroyed, and the wetlands drained, filled and converted to higher-valued real estate.

Pinkham envisioned the area becoming home to a more “desirable population” those of “private fortune, who seek an agreeable climate and surroundings, and who expend large already acquired incomes rather than those who expect the community to furnish them the opportunity of earning a livelihood.”

By the time I arrived, the reclamation of Waikiki was ancient history. I didn’t realize then that development on Oahu was just beginning, that one day we would no longer see smoke rising from the cane fields in Ewa, that we would ever imagine we might lose the fight to keep the country, country, or that the thriving districts of small locally owned businesses and low-rise rentals that existed all over town would ever be at risk.

I never dreamed that one day high-rise luxury condos, built for everyone else but us, would block the trade winds and our view of the Koolau from the beach at Ala Moana.

In the midst of all the marketing jabber, we hear assurances of affordable, workforce housing.

The planners talk about confining high-rise development to an urban core. In the same breath they advocate transit oriented development along the entire 20-mile length of the rail. In the midst of all the marketing jabber, we hear assurances of affordable, workforce housing.

If the vast majority of all the units in all the rising condo towers all over town are market priced, designed and intended for the upper crust among us or those of independent means, where does that leave the real “work force” of Honolulu and our coming generations?

If Kakaako and “Mid-Town Ala Moana” provide the example of what is coming down the pike, there will continue to be dramatic, irreversible change to our community. Locally owned small businesses will close, workers will lose their jobs and neighborhoods will be changed forever.

I miss the Kalua Pig & Cabbage at Diner’s, and I’ll miss the oxtail soup at Asahi Grill, but most of all I’ll miss the low-key, low-rise, everyone-knows-everyone, caring community that I’ve known.

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 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.

Read this next:

Lee Cataluna: An Anguished Father Calls For Mental Health Reform After Murder

Not a subscription

Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service. That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.

Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.


About the Author

M. Edward Weidenbach

M. Edward Weidenbach is a former curator and historian for the Battleship Missouri Memorial and author of “The Airman’s Club and Other Remembrances.”

Latest Comments (0)

Nice nostalgic recounting of the Kaka'ako and Honolulu before all the concrete., however, change is inevitable and it is happening where it should, in the urban core. You can argue about the definition of affordable, but that formula is set by our competent local government, so therein lies your gripe. The city has given out it's stamp of approval for all TOD designated development even if it is located miles from the actual rail line. And we are not even certain if that rail line will ever get to Ala Moana as originally planned a decade and $6B dollars ago. What we are certain of is that development will continue because that was what rail was all about from the very start. Admitting that brings truth and clarity of what is to come into focus. Until the state allows the rezoning of agricultural lands for housing, we are stuck with building up the urban core. And even if and when that happens, there are those NIBYS that will balk about it.

wailani1961 · 1 year ago

I beat you to Hawaii by a few years (1968). I enjoyed your nostalgic look backward. What your article doesn't do though is suggest a way forward. That's the hard part. I do know our lackluster governor, our corrupt legislators and our money-grubbing development companies don't give me much confidence that any of the sad issues you outline will get solved any time soon. When are we going to have some real LEADERSHIP in this state?? Is everybody (who relies on local wages) going to be living in a tent before someone acts?

DenniS · 1 year ago

Being able to live with a roof overhead is more important than nostalgia to me. :)The entire reason housing prices are going up is that we don't have enough of it.Rich people will always be able to afford housing. But if we don't build enough on the high-end, they'll be competing with all the middle-class people on the next level down, pushing up prices there and kicking the poorer people down even further to the bottom (or out of the state).Every single unit of housing adds to the supply market, regardless of cost, easing price pressures everywhere.Better to put all these new units in an area that won't contribute to traffic as much as other areas (walkable areas mean some trips get taken on foot).Lastly, a new unit of housing for a rich person doesn't hurt a middle-class or poor person at all, unless it's replacing cheaper units. But most of these new high-rises are on former parking lots! Or very old retail spaces. No one is losing out anything (except perhaps "views" in one small area), but hundreds more families have a place to live, preventing prices from rising as fast elsewhere.

joeyaloha · 1 year ago

Join the conversation


IDEAS is the place you'll find essays, analysis and opinion on every aspect of life and public affairs in Hawaii. We want to showcase smart ideas about the future of Hawaii, from the state's sharpest thinkers, to stretch our collective thinking about a problem or an issue. Email to submit an idea.


You're officially signed up for our daily newsletter, the Morning Beat. A confirmation email will arrive shortly.

In the meantime, we have other newsletters that you might enjoy. Check the boxes for emails you'd like to receive.

  • What's this? Be the first to hear about important news stories with these occasional emails.
  • What's this? You'll hear from us whenever Civil Beat publishes a major project or investigation.
  • What's this? Get our latest environmental news on a monthly basis, including updates on Nathan Eagle's 'Hawaii 2040' series.
  • What's this? Get occasional emails highlighting essays, analysis and opinion from IDEAS, Civil Beat's commentary section.

Inbox overcrowded? Don't worry, you can unsubscribe
or update your preferences at any time.