Editor’s Page: Our Own Private Honolulu

We look at the same town, but see different things.

Photo: Linny Morris

Three years ago, we had so much fun writing “40 Things Every Local Must Do,” that we immediately jotted down some ideas for a sequel, another way to get that list of qualities and experiences that define life in Hawaii. This month’s cover story, “50 Reasons To Love This City,” was one of those notions, too long deferred. There always seemed to be some more pressing story to cover.

Then this year got cranky. A spell of vog so thick you’d think we were conditioning Olympic athletes to compete in Beijing pollution. Two airlines shut down and airfares took off. So did the price of just about everything else. Everyone seems surly about rail, for or against. To top it all off, the upcoming election has coated everything with a thin, oily layer of politics.

We thought the perfect antidote would be a little positive thinking. Take a deep breath and think about some of the things you love about this city. We did, and the results start on page 40.

I contributed a few items to the feature, but was more excited to see what the members of our writing team came up with. They love things about this town that I’ve never really thought about, and reading their contributions reminded me that all of us live in our own private Honolulus. We look at the same town, but see different things.

Even after the article was finished, my mind wasn’t quite done with the assignment. It stirred up memories and jostled loose realizations. For example, one of my favorite things about life here is the way you can tell the seasons by the quality of the sunlight. It could just be my imagination, but I’m convinced that winter light in Honolulu is especially silver and clear, etching everything in fine lines and crisp detail, while summer light is more golden and gauzy. Between the two, I prefer the winter light.

In my private experience of life on this island, I’ve lived in different areas and found things I loved about each. In Waipahu, I liked the way it can get downright chilly at night when the trades sweep down through central Oahu. In Hawaii Kai, I loved the rough and scruffy hills; I even liked the commute to town—the sun is always at your back, and you can catch glimpses of the ocean alongside the road. In town, I love the compactness of the city, where nothing you might need is far away.

At home, I have a view looking mauka over the white sails of the convention center. When those are lit at night, and behind them, the lights of the city twinkle orange all the way up the ridges of the Koolau mountains, it looks pretty darn cool.

I like the new high-rises that have joined the skyline, but I also dig the older, mid-century buildings. I’ve had a strange obsession with decorative concrete blocks, the kind you see in a lot of statehood-era buildings and in countless suburban walls. The blocks are usually square, molded into a geometric pattern, such as chevrons or semicircles or a little square within the larger square of the block itself. Usually, you see them set like a grille, providing light and ventilation through their open design.  One particularly nice execution: Drive down Punchbowl at night toward Restaurant Row and watch for the ironworker’s building* on the left. A wall of these see-through concrete blocks screens the entire fire escape staircase and the illuminated stairway glows through this concrete lace.

There’s something about those blocks that seem so right for this town. Simple, unpretentious, sturdy, yet prettier than they need to be to get the job done.

It’s right about here, in a column such as this, that one expects the writer to say, Of course, my favorite thing about Honolulu is its people. But, you see, my architectural musings have set me up to compare Honoluluans to the modest-yet-lovely decorative concrete block, which would be awkward for all involved.

Besides, it’s hard to compliment Honoluluans. You ever notice that when you compliment kamaaina, they’ll actually try to talk you out of it? “No, no, no, it was nothing, it wasn’t me, it’s no big deal,” and so on. It’s an exasperating tendency—just say thank you and the compliment will end that much sooner!—but I kind of love that, too.

Of course, its people, who are modest and lovely. 

*CORRECTION: This building is misidentified. It houses the State Department of Transportation’s Highway Division.