Neal Milner: In Hawaii, Behind Every Plot Of Land Lies A Story - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.


Opinion article badgeThe Hawaii Tourism Authority is thinking about teaching history. Me too.

HTA’s is a very visible history while mine is much more hidden. Theirs is likely to be comforting. Mine is more uncomfortable.

The HTA plan is to create a Honolulu urban trail that would wander from the Capitol District through downtown and the waterfront and end in Chinatown. The design is modeled after the famous patriotic Boston Freedom Trail.

Good idea, a lovely walk and a way to teach some history.

But it’s only one kind of history and a conventional, stilted one at that because it features spaces that are manicured, filled and visibly memorialized.

Big shot spots. Many of you could design this same walk without even knowing the HTA plan.

But there is a lot of Oahu history to be learned featuring non-notable spaces that we often pass off as barren and insignificant if we even see them at all.

Nothing to see here. That’s what makes these sites important. Their emptiness has a history to it. That history may not make you feel happy, but it will make you feel.

Like two patches of land in East Oahu. One is on Keahole Street and Kalanianaole Highway across from the Mauanlua Bay parking lot. The other adjoins the never successful, sad-looking strip mall in Kalama Valley.

I’ll save the Kalama discussion for another time because the most recent issue there, which involves a proposed plan to build senior housing on that parcel, is just developing.

On to that strip of land in Hawaii Kai. Odds are you have driven by it many times but paid no attention.

Empty lot located near the intersection of Kalanianaole Highway and Keahole Street.
An empty lot in Hawaii Kai near the intersection of Kalanianaole Highway and Keahole Street has a history of its own. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Or maybe during Honolulu Marathon time, you know it as the place where two dozen portable potties are temporarily placed in military formation to service the runners.

The land is parched. It looks more barren than it ever has in all the time I have lived here, more wasteland than grassland.

The flock of cattle egrets that used to follow the lawnmower Pied Piper style is gone because there is no grass to cut.

But barren, nondescript, or empty space is not the same as insignificant, at least when an encroachment has come along. Then visions move from the past to the future, and imagination kicks in.

As when something suddenly seems seriously out of place, like an abandoned shopping cart or a proposed strip mall.

A couple of years ago, someone mysteriously left a solitary shopping cart with some belongings in the middle of the field. Was it the beginning of a homeless outpost? This triggered all kinds of concerns about the homeless problem in Hawaii Kai, their haven versus our haven.

But the biggest struggle over this patch occurred a few years ago when Kamehameha Schools tried to develop a shopping center on the land with a Foodland supermarket as an anchor tenant.

There was fierce community opposition. It was successful. Kamehameha Schools withdrew the plans. But for both sides this patch took on new meaning.

The land wasn’t barren anymore, at least in peoples’ imagination. And it was about havens again.

One of the developers insisted this was not going to be a shopping center, but rather “a gathering place.”

A luau is a gathering place. A shopping center is Napa Auto Parts.

The opponents called this land “The Great Lawn” and “the gateway to Hawaii Kai.”

The Star Bulletin was reverential: “The Great Lawn is of great importance to the Hawaii Kai and East Honolulu community. Many say it sets the ambience of the neighborhood and is a beloved piece of land.”

I’ve lived across the street from this land for over 40 years, and until this controversy I never heard anyone describe it in such worshipful, ohana-laden terms. The Great Lawn? Really? Beloved? Both sides appropriate the descriptions because language is so powerful.

Both sides were also alike in what they didn’t say about the land and what they erase from the area’s history. To them, it is only about the new Hawaii Kai.

The patch is part of a larger story of the old Hawaii Kai that development erased.

To understand this, head to the Koko Head border of the contested patch, down Keahole Street across the bridge into the Hawaii Kai Shopping Center.

On the water side, near the ocean recreation businesses, there is a sign in the window of a restaurant that went out of business during the pandemic:

“Keahupuaomaunalua Pond,” it says, referring to what we now call Kuapa Pond. It goes on to say that Keahupuaomaunalua means “shrine of the baby ‘ama’ama (mullet).”

Why a shrine? Because, as the sign points out, there was a loko, a stonewall fishpond there. This largest known loko was almost a mile long and connected by underground tunnel to a pond near Enchanted Lake in Kailua. Pretty amazing.

The shopping center sign ends by bringing us up to the present, which abruptly is not about fishponds at all.

The pond, which is now considered part of the Hawaii Kai Marina, “serves the local community’s enthusiasm for water activities.”

When Henry Kaiser laid out his plans for developing Hawaii Kai, the pond was part of a saltwater marsh, not the wide expanse of water that’s there now.

People writing about Kaiser at the time described him as a visionary who was creating something out of nothing. Scanning an emptiness and filling it with something valuable.

The Hawaii Kai development plan called this land “raw” and “underdeveloped” and said nothing about the lagoon’s prior history.

At that time, newspaper descriptions of the area also minimized the land’s previous use and similarly saw it as “little more than a swamp, a breeding ground for smelly algae and mosquitoes.”

When I was researching the history of condo development back in my academic days, I came across a real estate advertisement for what was then the new Hawaii Kai.

It was a before and after ad. The before was a picture of a scruffy, shirtless bearded native-looking old man in a cane pole boat you’d see in the Louisiana bayous. Definitely a swamp hermit vibe.

The “after” photo of this ad features a smiling, handsome Hapa Haole family in a powerful speed boat exhilarating on the clear, wide expanse that replaced the marshland.

Times change. No one in the patch dispute talked about the patch of land on the corner in the same dismissive, “nothing there” way that people talked about the marshland in the 1960s.

Implicitly, though, they accepted that it was no longer about Hawaii Kai’s present and future, not at all about its history.

The land has moved from “little more than a swamp” to much more than a swamp, in fact to no swamp at all. The sophisticated loko is reduced to a sign.

The fight over the proposed shopping center simply became a property dispute that people, say, in Yankton, South Dakota, would have no trouble understanding.

For the first 25 years or so that my family lived in our townhouse along one of Hawaii Kai’s Kaiser-developed canals that are part of the Marina, we saw ‘ama’ama jumping out of the water many times a day.

I haven’t seen any in years.

On the Next Door site, someone recently complained that they were stopped in Hawaii Kai Marina for not having a boat permit. I’m a taxpayer, he said, why shouldn’t I be able to use it?

Commentators quickly pointed out that the marina is private property and that people in Hawaii Kai pay a marina fee that gives us exclusive use.

Land and power in Hawaii Kai.


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About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.


Latest Comments (0)

"Old man take a look at your life, I'm a lot like you..." sang Neil Young. I am old, born in plantation camp, college educated and retired living in Kalihi Valley. We are all captives like an ant in a bead of honey conditioned by the tyranny of our "now," the illusion that our time is the only one that matters. Tour guides in Rome say they see ghosts of Roman soldiers walking certain streets but only their torsos are visible above ground because the road they walked on has been covered by the dust of time. They are walking on the Rome they knew. We will all be night marcher one day walking the Kalihi, the Manoa or Hawaii Kai we once lived in.

JM · 1 week ago

Another great piece by Mr. Milner. Mahalo.There's been a tendency by the U.S. to put their own "spin" on things, resulting in less-than-accurate historical recounts of what actually transpired. Hawaii has been a victim of this, along with other lands, as well as having been subject to an on-going usurping: place names being changed, legacies, histories & customs obliterated, etc. for the sake of facilitating those with their own "new vision" or new stories (and the means/money/power to make it happen, within the law or not). Hawaii Kai has remnants from a heiau near its base as well as many stone artifacts just below the apex, presumably as a part of the same historical setting (both of which I've personally seen). As a result, if I understand things correctly and current laws are abided by, any further development in the area would not be permitted.

KeepingItReal · 1 week ago

Great article. It's amazing that Kaiser's vision would be considered environmental sacrilege in today's world. The destruction of an ecosystem for $$$.It would be a great story for tourists on their way to Hanauma Bay or circle island. This was one of Hawaii's largest managed ancient inland fish ponds but was destroyed by Kaiser and turned into housing, commercial hubs and a private marina. A local high school in honor of this developer is located below The Koko Crater.

surferx808 · 2 weeks ago

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