Our Kakaako: A Transition Back to Vibrant Coastal Community

By Napua Heen
Photo:  Hawaii State Archives.

Kawaiahaʻo Church (1800’s), located on the north west corner of Kakaʻako, was a gathering place for many residents over the years. Photo: Hawaii State Archives.

Kakaʻako is undoubtedly Hawaiʻi’s most talked about neighborhood. It’s where the locals hang out. It’s the hub of food, fashion and entertainment in Hawaiʻi. Kakaʻako is a highly innovative place, thriving in the arts, and a meeting place for forward facing thinkers.

Click here to learn about new homes in Kakaʻako.

Map of the Kakaʻako neighborhood in 1927.  Photo:  Honolulu Advertiser.

Map of the Kakaʻako neighborhood in 1927. Photo: Honolulu Advertiser.

Before Kakaʻako was Hawaiʻi’s “coolest neighborhood,” it was mostly an industrial area dominated by warehouses, merely a shadow of the once thriving neighborhood community that existed in the early and mid-1900s. As Hawaiʻi embraces the “live, work, play” model of coastal urban living, we take a look back at the history of Kakaʻako. We reflect on the humble beginnings of the people and families cultivated in this place. And we celebrate a transition back to the rich community fabric that once existed here.

Old Kakaako Cultivated Camaraderie

Photo:  Thomas Shahan.

School of fish along the shoreline. Photo: Thomas Shahan.

Kakaʻako, in its earliest years, was a Hawaiian fishing village. There were taro patches and salt beds here as well. The low-lying marshlands were fertile, and the people traded goods from mauka to makai, from the mountains to the ocean.

The 1800s saw a great influx of immigrants, specifically from China and Japan. By the turn of the century, many of these immigrants had settled in Kakaʻako, opening schools, churches and businesses. The result is that by 1950, Kakaʻako had developed a very distinct personality. Known as a “rough and tough” neighborhood to outsiders, Kakaʻako was a warm and generous community to those who lived there.

Marsha (Kimura) Gibson grew up in Kakaʻako in an era when neighbor helped neighbor, and she reflects upon her childhood community with fondness.

“Everyone was the same—poor, and there was no prejudice; we all got along.  Various ethnic groups merged to form an unbreakable bond. Although we were poor, we respected each other and learned to appreciate our different traditions and cultures,” remembers Gibson.

Gibson has authored a book, Kakaʻako As We Knew It (Mutual Publishing, 2011), which beautifully captures the camaraderie of Old Kakaʻako.

“The camaraderie continues,” says Gibson, “with our annual Pohukaina School/Kakaʻako Reunions; this year marks our 25th anniversary.  Old Kakaʻako comes alive again at our reunions; it’s a joy to witness the grins and backslapping of old friends and former neighbors.”

From Humble Beginnings

Saimin bowl.  Photo:  Napua Heen/ Hawaii.com.

Saimin bowl. Photo: Napua Heen/ Hawaii.com.

From this humble community of well-knit neighbors came a number of Hawaiʻi’s best success stories.

Gibson shares about Matsuda Saimin, which was “reputed to have the best saimin in Honolulu at the time, and customers from all over the island went to Kakaʻako just to enjoy their saimin.” One of the children of the Matsuda family, Fujio Matsuda, grew up to become Dr. Fujio Matsuda and “held many high offices in the State of Hawaii, including former Director of the State Department of Transportation and President of the University of Hawaii at Manoa,” says Gibson. The University of Hawaii at Manoa is the flagship campus of the University of Hawaii system.

Another such story is of Judge Frank Takao. Gibson tells of how Judge Takao, who grew up in Kakaʻako, referred to himself as “the only judge who flunked kindergarten.” He was born late in the year and repeated kindergarten. He would later go on to become a district and circuit court judge.

Gibson shares about a little boy who loved milk, Glenn Muranaka. Muranaka grew up to become President of Meadow Gold Dairies, Hawaiʻi’s most notable dairy distributor.

Many will recognize the name Gabby Pahinui, Hawaiʻi’s famous slack key guitar player. Pahinui was born and raised in Kakaʻako. It’s where he learned to play slack key guitar. It’s where he fell in love with his wife and where his children were born. Gabby would later move to Waimanalo, but his roots were in Kakaʻako.

A final story – and this one “signature Kakaʻako” – is about Yono Kitagawa, also known as “Mr. Kakaʻako.” Kitagawa was a well-loved boxing coach. He coached and mentored many of Kakaʻako’s young men, keeping them out of trouble. Many of these Kakaʻako boys would go on to become champion amateur boxers and bring an immense sense of pride to their neighborhood.

A Transition Back to the Thriving Community

Kakaako.  Photo:  Star-Advertiser/ Jamm Aquino.

Walking a dog along Kakaako Waterfront Park. Photo: Star-Advertiser/ Jamm Aquino.

“Kakaʻako was a tightly knit community and well known for [its] champion boxers,” recalls Gibson.  “Residents looked out for each other; a feeling of ʻohana and unity permeated the district.”

When asked what values she would like to see perpetuated and cultivated by the next generations of Kakaʻako, Gibson replied, “The sharing of cultures, food, and entertainment.”

Click here to learn about new homes in Kakaʻako.

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