Star-Bulletin Features

Monday, June 1, 1998


By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Lopaka Luecke and his cousin, Jasmine Luecke, enjoy
ice cream cones after school at a crackseed store.

The town that rose out of
a red-dirt desert, where small
businesses can now take root, turns
100 years old this weekend

By Burl Burlingame


IT'S been there as long as anyone can remember. On a Kaimuki sidewalk, on the Diamond Head side of Waialae Avenue, as the street crests over Koko Head Avenue, in front of the Gecko comic shop, is a proud legend scrawled in concrete. The sense of achievement is still palpable in the sweeping flourish of the letters:

"A DREAM COME TRUE!" and it's signed by C.S. Crane, mayor Honolulu, and Tuck Yee Yap, Kaimuki businessman, on Sept. 1 1938.

The "dream" was a modern supermarket, the first in Hawaii, built on the spot by Yee, whose previous grocery store had been destroyed by fire early in 1938.

The Kaimuki Super Market is long gone, as is Yee, who passed away in 1980, but the bones of the structure remain, housing small businesses such as Gecko and Azteca restaurant.

The Kaimuki Bakery, shown in this 1956 photo, was a
familiar town business that occupied "12th and
Waialae" for many years.

Things change, but the small-town flavor remains. It's a metaphor for Kaimuki, as was Yee himself, a model of the modern upwardly mobile Hawaii businessman who equated progress with new construction.

Educated at Punahou, Stanford and New York University, Yee (his surname is Yee, not Yap) also managed to run afoul of the law occasionally, such as a time during the war when he was busted for selling stolen cigarettes. Is it any wonder that Kaimuki, settled by hustling small entrepreneurs, has a tinge of the Wild West?

The community's business district turns 100 this year, with a celebration this weekend at Market City, which technically is just outside the borders of Kaimuki. Figuring exactly where Kaimuki starts and ends is an interesting exercise in itself -- the map we use On Page X-X is based on the tax-key boundaries -- but essentially, if the street or cross-street nearest you is numbered, you're in Kaimuki.

"Kaimuki is the only place other than Hickam that uses numbered streets. It dates back to the original subdividing," explained Glenn Mason, a preservation architect. "The area was a red-dirt desert. It was the end of the line for the trolley car and it took the community many years to take off."

"I know I'm in Kaimuki when it gets hot and dry," said draftsman Neil Izumi, who grew up in, lives in and works in Kaimuki.

Businesses have come and gone but Waialae Avenue,
shown in 1968, is still Kaimuki's "main street." Here, Milton
W.B. Choy, president of the Business and Professional
Association overlooks the town center.

It's pronounced "ka-imu-ki," the place of the ovens lined with ti leaves, and that's as apt a description of the climate there as you'll get.

A fellow named A.V. Gear, a part-owner of the Evening Bulletin, the ancestor of this newspaper, had the bright idea of transforming this scrub land into housing lots. Land went for 3 cents a square foot a century ago, and still buyers were hard to come by. As an attraction, Gear built a little zoo near the horsecar line, which backfired one rainy day when the stripes washed off the "zebra."

Until Honolulu Rapid Transit built a trolley line in the mid-'20s, the area was considered a jerkwater turnaround, but the mass-transit line and a reservoir transformed the sleepy community into a kind of boom town.

"The oldest building there now is the Lee and Lee building where Pizza Hut is, and that's from the late '20s," said Bill Chapman, of the University of Hawaii's historic preservation department, and who conducted a survey of the neighborhood a few summers ago.

"The area developed a kind of architectural vocabulary all its own, a kind of stripped-down art moderne with strong horizontal elements such as awnings. It was really quite the center in the 1930s and '40s, with Waialae Avenue acting like the Main Street in a small town."

"Other communities, like Pearl City and Kalihi, used to have that sense of having a heart in the center, but they all began to bleed together," said Mason. "But Kaimuki has managed to retain that sense of 'separateness,' mainly because it's so awkward to enter and leave the area. You feel like there's a kind of gateway at each end of Waialae Avenue."

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
All that's left of Hawaii's first modern supermarket, built in 1938,
is an inscription in the sidewalk.

The H-1 freeway, built in the early 1960s, hovers over the Ewa end of Waialae like a low-hanging thunderhead, increasing the sense of transition from one place to another. The freeway proved to be a mixed blessing for Kaimuki as it tore through several residential blocks like a concrete tornado -- dividing the primary residential area from the primary business area -- and hustling consumers to markets far away from Kaimuki.

But it also placed Kaimuki into a kind of time capsule, keeping the rate of development low-key.

"The area has a nice homey feel because -- I hate to say -- because of neglect. It kept the height of the buildings low and the rate of demolition to a minimum," said Mason.

"The bypass was pretty much the end of Kaimuki's upward vitality," said Chapman.

Before the freeway was built, Kaimuki did have some big stores: McInery's, Ben Franklin and several furniture stores. And during the 1950s, it boasted an elaborate Santa Claus parade when Waialae was festooned with Christmas lights and showy decorations.

"It's thought of today as pretty much of a blue-collar shopping area. One of the not-so-funny jokes about Kaimuki you hear from developers is that it has two anchor stores -- Salvation Army and Goodwill.

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Patrick Oliver makes a call below awnings that
are as much a part of this town as its blue-collar shopping.

"It's fairer to think of Kaimuki as an incubation area with cheap rents and a stable population base, where small businesses and restaurants can get established before moving elsewhere. Waialae Avenue would be the perfect place to create a Main Street program, and we tried a few years ago, but funding dried up and there was some opposition from local business owners."

Main Street is a federal program that revitalizes economic communities by accentuating their sense of "place," their historic and cultural heritage as a marketing tool.

"Except for here and there, Kaimuki is still really nice, and it could be vital again with just some superficial facade planning so the area ties together thematically," said Chapman. "They can take a page out of Miami's planning, which zeroed in on what was special about the community and used that to sell the idea of 'Miami' instead of 'city.'

"For example, Kaimuki should never get rid of its awnings and canopies on the street. They're part of what makes Kaimuki Kaimuki."

Even Tuck Yee Yap sensed this, more than four decades ago.

Yee rebuilt his corner for the third time in 20 years in 1957, creating the Kaimuki Shopping Center. This is the building that today houses the restaurant and the comic shop, not the Death Star-like structure with the same name down the street. Yee kept his facade low-key and inviting, pedestrian-friendly.

Even though the buildings and people were changing in 1957, Yee kept the inscription on the sidewalk, and it's still there. Maybe Yee felt the dream was still coming true. Time will tell, as it always does.


Let's celebrate

Bullet Kaimuki Centennial Celebration runs 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. June 6 at Kaimuki Community Center Park. Features entertainment by the Royal Hawaiian Band, Frank DeLima and others, door prizes and a display of historical photographs of the area curated by John Takasaki.
Bullet Information: 926-3159 or 388-5299.

Do It Electric!

Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Do It Electric!]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]
[Stylebook] [Feedback]

© 1998 Honolulu Star-Bulletin