By Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin
Wesley Lum, far left, is joined by his parents, niece
and her daughter at the Aiea Sugar Mill. From left, are Wesley Lum,
Buck Lum, Mary Ann Lum, and Kehaulani Lum,
holding Kanani'ohokulani D'Angelo.
Sugar mill once definedBy Wesley and Kehaulani Lum
life in Aiea and could again
Editor's note: Residents of Aiea who want to save the 100-year-old Aiea Sugar Mill from destruction are proposing to turn the site into a town community center. Financial trouble has forced landowner Rick Ralston to sell the property he once envisioned as the headquarters for his Crazy Shirts T-shirt company. Demolition was scheduled as early as next week. Early one recent morning, several members of our family stood in the shadow of the Aiea Sugar Mill, quietly lamenting Rick Ralston's decision to raze the national landmark.
We joined a host of multi-ethnic Aiea residents -- young, old, mothers, fathers and grandmothers -- each with a special reason for appealing the decision to demolish the mill.
As Aiea landowners for more than seven generations, our family has experienced first-hand the ravages of unfettered urban sprawl. The once-bountiful acreage of our fathers' childhood memories, lush with spring-fed kalo, watercress and lotus root lo'i, fell victim long ago to condemnation easements and gentrification. Along with the lo'i went the passing of a lifestyle rich in subsistence practice and history.
Our own memories recall Nalopaka Place, a former dirt lane, strewn with bullfrogs and assorted rural wildlife. Mrs. Kapihe, a jovial, warm Hawaiian woman who walked to Mass nearly everyday, lived in the house nearest the road, just beyond our family cemetery.
Today, our once quiet entry is a candidate for "neighborhood watch" designation, where one resident has taken to posting a crude, homemade banner along a next-door property line, with words that begin, "Dead beat neighbor, shame on you..."
As perhaps one of the only remaining pre-mill families yet residing in the area, we understand the cost of "progress." This is why we believe that it is time to regain control of our future.
From the ashes of king sugar, the community of Aiea, named for a once abundant shrub, is struggling to find a sense of place.
Today, this patchwork village of residences, retail strips and gated convenience stores bears the scars of decades of buckshot growth.
Our "Main Street" is a wide-lane super roadway cutting violently through the heart of the hillside community, the main Ewa-bound exit ramp for nearby Pearlridge Shopping Center.
Our "district park" is substandard by the Parks and Recreation Department's own definition. There is not enough field space for all of our youth leagues.
There is no real public community center to speak of. The availability of 19.4 acres of land presents a rare opportunity in this densely populated area for meaningful community change.
The Aiea Sugar Mill Town Center calls for the creation of an interactive place of pride and identity at the present mill site.
It is the vision of local residents that, at its heart, will serve as "a place for neighbors to gather for festivals and public performances; a destination where resident shoppers can browse the open market, seniors can gather to talk story, students can visit their community library, and children can safely stroll or bike on a meandering path through a stream-side park."
This plan will memorialize a symbolic landmark built nearly 100 years ago and recorded on both the Hawaii Register of Historic Places and the National Register of Historic Places.
But that is secondary to its true value as "the knot that ties together the fabric of our neighborhood."
It will launch a quality of life in ways far more enriching and lasting than Crazy Shirts' proposed shopping center or industrial use concept. Further, it will restore a sense of togetherness increasingly lacking.
To accomplish this task will not be easy. But, then, important things seldom are. It will take a bit more kokua on Rick Ralston's and his financial institution's part.
Yet, in the long run, it may prove to be a more lucrative return on their investment than the loss they currently anticipate.
It will take the serious commitment of our elected officials -- at all levels -- to facilitate meaningful discussions and outcomes.
And it will take the continued effort of area residents in embracing and illuminating viable social and economic alternatives.
It is a valuable and rare exercise in government, business and community collaboration which poses no risk and bears no downside.
In this scenario, everybody benefits: Ralston's vision of preserving the landmark will be fulfilled, with minimal loss, and he will be a hero rather than the villain he now regrettably and undeservedly appears. Government will be more in touch with its citizenry, at minimal cost when amortized over time. Our youth and elderly will have a safe, drug-free place to come together. And Aiea residents will again appreciate what it means to be a first-class community.
Wesley Lum and his niece, Kehaulani,
live next door to each other in Aiea.