Neal Milner: Honolulu Needs To Be More Than Just A Lot Of People Living Together - 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.

On Oct. 27, 2018, a gunman murdered 11 Jews at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood.

The massacre is the largest antisemitic attack in American history.

Opinion article badge

In his recent book, Mark Oppenheimer shows how the Squirrel Hill community tries to recover from this trauma. It is a remarkable story, so uplifting in the context of such fear and loss.

Squirrel Hill’s response is a model of community. But it’s a model that really can’t be emulated because that neighborhood is so unique.

Often people in Hawaii talk as if we have places here like Squirrel Hill. We don’t.

But if we are careful, people here can learn from that community, borrowing some things while understanding that Squirrel Hill communities are a thing of the past and can’t be recreated.

Squirrel Hill is the oldest, most stable, most internally diverse Jewish neighborhood in the United States.

Oppenheimer says, “Whereas many American cities lost their Jewish populations to white flight after World War II, the Jewish population of Pittsburgh never relocated en masse, and half of it still lives in Squirrel Hill or the immediately adjacent East End neighborhoods. Often Jews who leave return.”

Its intimacy can really resonate in a very literal, physical way: “the ice cream shop, the shoe store, the kosher butcher, and synagogues of every denomination were all within a quarter mile of each other, give or take, so everyone walked the same sidewalks and, for the most part, nodded warmly as they passed.”

Small things but powerful. It makes you wistful, doesn’t it? It is literally Mister Roger’s neighborhood. Fred Rogers and his wife worshiped at that neighborhood’s Presbyterian church.

Kakaako condominiums skyline with foreground a view looking makai of Ward Avenue.
Kakaako, the closest thing to a new urban neighborhood, certainly is not designed to foster Squirrel Hill’s old-school cohesiveness. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

This stability happened a little by chance, but it also took intention and hard work. Fifty years ago, when white flight and suburbanization was rampant all over the country, Squirrel Hill leaders coalesced to form what became a powerful group that kept this from happening in their neighborhood.

They weren’t simply good people coming together. They had mechanisms already in place that made it possible to come together, though God knows they never dreamt it would be for a mass shooting.

To sum up, long-term social and political factors made it possible for the Squirrel Hill neighborhood to remain an outlier that bucked some of the most powerful economic trends in the US — suburbanization, sprawl, white flight and segregation.

One more indicator: the neighborhood public high school is quite racially diverse by big city standards and continues to be one of the best high schools in Pittsburgh.

This is the way urbanites want to live when they describe why they want to move back to town. Walkability but much more, villages within the city. The richness and humanity of a small town but also part of the drive and excitement of a big city.

Honestly, it made me want to live in Pittsburgh.

To say the least, the mass murder of those Pittsburgh Jews was an unnatural disaster. Yet the same characteristics of closeness and face-to-face relationships that make Squirrel Hill so special are exactly the kinds of things that are important in surviving a natural disaster like a category four hurricane.

But Squirrel Hill has thrived and survived because of a unique set of circumstances that can’t be recreated.

Hawaii can learn from this model and adopt some of its parts. And we should.

There are no Honolulu neighborhoods resembling Squirrel Hill. Maybe at one time Honolulu neighborhoods were configured like it with crowded, common gathering places and folks doing all their shopping in their neighborhood stores, but that’s a thing of the past. So is walkability for that matter.

How many of you walk to your nearest strip mall? How many know any of those store owners? When’s the next time the papers run a story about a mom-and-pop business closing?

A public school may be the center of some Honolulu neighborhoods, but for the most part, parents who can afford it send their kids to private schools, which are likely to be outside the neighborhood.

As for Oahu’s two newest neighborhoods, Kapolei is designed along the lines of a 1990s mainland suburb, and Kakaako, the closest thing to a new urban neighborhood, certainly is not designed to foster Squirrel Hill’s old-school cohesiveness.

Don’t see this just as a critique. My point is that the basic ways we think about urban Honolulu and the basic ways it is configured create structures and ways of living that make and reinforce the fact that Squirrel Hill as a development model is history.

Another key economic difference: One reason people return to live in Squirrel Hill is that they can afford the housing. A key reason people leave Hawaii is because they can’t afford to stay.

Still, Squirrel Hill-style living seems so appealing even if you never have lived that way — the way farm life used to appeal to urban dwellers in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

So, we should not give up on the Squirrel Hill model, but rather see what good things we can take from it without illusions.

Here Are Some Things Hawaii Can Do

First, and easiest, create more crowded gathering places where people bump into one another. For sure this strengthens a neighborhood’s social infrastructure. One way is to create more outdoor eating venues. Right now, when it comes to this, compared to other cities, Honolulu is like Anchorage in winter.

Second, increase the opportunities for people of different social classes to be together. This is not pie in the sky kumbaya liberalism. Diverse contacts make an economic difference, especially for low-income people.

We know that religious institutions are good at this. Squirrel Hill’s synagogues play a big role, but not so much because people spend a lot of time actually worshiping. Those institutions are important because they become a big source of social and communicative life — gathering places.

It’s not likely that there are going to be more churches or synagogues in Kakaako, but there is much to be learned about what makes them tick the way neighborhoods need ticking.

Gyms have similar potential.

All of this requires a long time to brew. Honolulu development has the density down, but not the actual way of living that brings people together in those meaningful, powerful ways.

This requires a significant reorientation. Start by realizing that describing Hawaii as a special place and a unique bubble of niceness and ohana is often more of a defense and rationalization than a vision.

That makes it sound too much like we are there already, rather than at a crossroads where we need to create something more about urban life than just a lot of people living together.

When it comes to the future of this place, there is too much thinking at the extremes of nostalgia and cynicism.

Fifty years ago, Squirrel Hill leaders successfully sought to keep a dense neighborhood urban.

In Hawaii we need to focus on a harder question: How do we make places with high density be more urban.

Creating, not preserving, but still borrowing ideas about preservation.

Read this next:

Catherine Toth Fox: How Botanists Are Trying To Spur A Limu Rebound In Hawaii

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

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)

I feel there is at least some forethought to Kaka'ako, it may not include everything, but unlike Makiki, Salt Lake, or Moilili, where there is absolutely no planning, at least there is a vision which can be added to unlike the former. I think the bigger question is who takes the lead on this, the city, which seems to historically, be incompetent at anything (ie. rail), or the two land owners that control this area; Hughes and KSBE? Who pays for things like parks and public attractions, when the city hasn't even paved the roads there in over 3 decades? It's one thing to plan and put up nice drawings and another to properly maintain public infrastructure, which is not Honolulu's strong suit.

wailani1961 · 4 months ago

I think of Harlowe's monkey's where baby monkey's were given the choice between food delivered by a surrogate monkey of metal and touch by a surrogate covered in warm fur. The young monkey's chose touch over food. At the scale of urban design or community architecture we have been given a built world of metal and plate glass built on real estate speculation. This alienation leads downstream to loss of civility, care and everything we want in coming to live together in cities. We need a revolution at many levels of thought and values and "same old, same old" will only lead us deeper into our intimacy disorder.

JM · 4 months ago

Gentle urban planning is one way to achieve this. There's no rhyme or reason to the way development happens now... just random buildings going up here and there with no ultimate civic goal. They have the chance to create a complete neighbourhood on the Aloha Stadium site, but instead they're looking at building a white elephant stadium and MAYBE some random, disconnected high rises.

SleepyandDopey · 4 months 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.