read::zebra's

On myth, tourism, and ancient land patterns

In Thoughts on January 13, 2011 at 10:23 pm

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Honolulu is a place that once experienced as a kama’aina—a local—somehow becomes shallower. Most places, especially cities, seep into your blood as you get to know them, infusing your DNA with their urban genetic code, but Honolulu serves mostly as the central construct of a Hawaiian myth, not one native to the islands, but written and passed down by the Bureau of Tourism.

If you visit O’ahu today, much of the splendor of the 20th century has been
co-opted by the maintenance of a cheap, glamorous facade. In Waikiki especially, the idea of a “beautiful island vacation” is built like a card house: the paper-thin layers of the hotels, restaurants (more kitsch than hand-crafted care), and beaches do little to hide the voids between, which are filled with chess-playing homeless, angry and increasingly addicted native Hawaiians, petty politics, and a near-total dearth of modernized infrastructure or contemporary culture.


It is a city that feels timeless. Not in the way jewelers want you to believe diamonds are timeless, but in the sense that it is unaware of time, and therefore unaware of any other place in time. It is not on the level of any other American cities, which vie to be cleanest, or greenest, or most innovative. It gives the impression it is always 20 years behind while also implying that things will never change at all—not in 20 years, or 50. I expect Kalakaua Avenue, Waikiki’s main strip, will look mostly the same in 10 years and again in 10 more. The Hawaiian myth will continue to be told, planted in the minds of new generations, who will hold Honolulu as some idol in the not-too-distant future, someday attainable.

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Honolulu’s sprawling built environment consists of 30-year-old high- and mid-rises and the light, airy, single-family homes of any other warm-weather isle. The city is contained within the avenue created by the mountains (mauka) and the ocean (makai). Its streets have been described as a bowl of spaghetti, plopped onto the city’s plate; there was little, if any, urban planning during the height of Hawaii’s boom, around the time Elvis made it famous and stayed in Kauai’s now abandoned Coco Palms. (To see the shell of this resort today, shuttered, falling apart, a relic of another time is fascinating—much could be written about it.)

It was a new resort that had gotten me thinking about Hawaii’s built environment a while back. I was editing a story about a developer planning a new resort on the Big Island (the one that is Hawaii). The story mentioned an old practice that early tribes used to distribute land. Because it was beneficial to have access to both mountain regions and the ocean, land was divided into long, narrow strips called ahupua’a. For the resort, the architects borrowed this idea, designing the space so that each guest had a view of the mountains and access to the beach. I don’t know whether to call that borrowing or bastardization—or simply today’s norm: taking ancient, often sacred practices that preserved the natural environment and ensured equitable treatment of all people and using them as “design elements” of an exclusive getaway for the hyper-rich.

As we were flying back to the mainland a few weeks ago, I noticed that Honolulu has retained an echo of the long-vanished ahupua’a. Responding to the topography, just as early tribes did, neighborhoods stretch into the foothills, like fingers from the palm of the city. They rise up the ridges, narrowing to points and cutting off abruptly as the slope becomes too steep. In this way, the city reaches from makai to mauka in long strips much like the ahupua’a, divided by the valleys, which remain undeveloped. Seen from the air (as in the top photo), it is as if white tentacles of built environment stretch toward the center of the island while green claws reach down toward the sea. Seen at night, the valleys disappear into the night, and the houses appear to float on invisible slopes.

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Across the island from Honolulu and Waikiki is the North Shore, a haven for native flora, fauna, and unspoiled vistas, populated by locals and transplants, hippies most of them, surfers all. It’s a must-see for tourists, but there aren’t hotels, so it’s the quintessential Hawaiian day-trip: set out early from a Waikiki car-rental, get to Hale’iwa (North Shore’s only real town) by mid-morning, hit Waimea by noon, and wind your way back to Honolulu in time for happy hour.

The reason people have to leave early is because there’s only one road to North Shore, an old two-lane that circles the entire island. By mid-morning it slows to a crawl. The obvious, or increasingly “logical” solution would be to build a bigger highway, perhaps a four-lane freeway that skirts Hale’iwa and takes a more direct route to the tourist hot spots: Exit 49 Hale’iwa, Exit 51A Turtle Beach, Exit 51B Waimea. As it is now there are no exits because the road goes to everything, one stop at a time.

But this is actually a great example of how old infrastructure naturally limits use and therefore helps preserve treasured areas. Aside from the immediate, localized destruction it would cause, a highway would also suddenly make North Shore that much more accessible. Beaches would become more crowded, overrun with tourists; Hale’iwa would be inundated with throngs of pedestrians (whose cars would fill the few parking spots in minutes); and the hubbub of the city would inch ever closer.

There’s much more to say about Hawaii, even just this last time spent there. The coincidence of—on this particular trip—finally reading Joan Didion, who we discovered spent much of her time at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, just down the street from where we stay when we’re in Waikiki. Or the sheer size and ‘Third Worldness’ of the homeless villages constructed from spare parts and found objects that stretch on for miles along the Waianae coast, on the far west side of the island, a place that feels like the edge of the world.

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  1. It is immensely ironic to me that this post is automatically linked with advertisements for “Dream Condo Rental in Hawaiian Paradise!”.

    I’ve thought about all of this stuff a lot every time I go to Hawaii. It’s never quite a relaxing-mindless-dream-vacation…the veneer of kitsch tourism always seems so thin to me. Go to Thai beaches sometime–it’s similar in some ways, but then different in some very crucial ways. There it’s harder to believe the fantasy, whereas in Hawaii, I think most of the tourists who go there actually do buy into it.

  2. […] Jan. 13 On myth, tourism, and ancient land patterns :: Hawaii’s built environment echoes old tribal practices—but not nearly enough […]

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