Paradise Lost: Sprawl Transformed Honolulu From Utopia to Urban Mess

April 23, 2018 | Joe Guzzardi

Let’s be clear from the outset. Travelers who have never visited Honolulu, Hawaii’s capital located on Oahu, should make it their next destination before what was once paradise vanishes forever.

In some ways, Honolulu, with Waikiki Beach and Diamond Head, is still magnificent. But with each day that passes, Honolulu is less like the garden utopia that existed decades ago and that might still live in many people’s Hawaiian fantasies.

In the 1920s, not that long ago in the long-term picture, a Los Angeles Steamship Company ocean liner sailed for the Hawaiian Islands every Saturday to make the 2,500 mile journey, while the Royal Hawaiian band played “Aloha Oe.” As friends and family stood cheering, tossing confetti and waving goodbye, passengers danced on deck to the popular jazz tunes that the ship’s band played. Ocean travel’s romantic imagery soon gave way to quicker airliners, and eventually to jumbo jets like the Airbus A330 that brings millions of worldwide tourists to Honolulu each year, great for the state’s multi-billion dollar economy but devastating to its landscape.

Many of Honolulu’s popular restaurants display glorious pictures from the 1930s. In one, legendary surfer Duke Kahanamoku is standing on Waikiki’s shoreline without another building in sight. Today, the coast is overbuilt with high-rise condos and expensive resorts. International sunbathers lie shoulder-to-shoulder, a far cry from the magnificent conditions during the Duke’s day.

Since 1970, when the Ala Moana Hotel was Honolulu’s first building to exceed 350 feet, the construction boom has brought the total to more than 470 high-rises. To put the 470 number in perspective, it places Honolulu as sixth in the nation behind New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston and Washington, D.C. More than 17 Honolulu asymmetric eyesores exceed 40 floors.

A view of Honolulu, now covered in houses and buildings.

With tourism comes the rental car scourge, the leading factor in Honolulu’s ranking on America’s most congressed highways’ list. In the dubious most trafficked category, Honolulu comes in eighth, behind nightmarish California cities of Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Jose. Consistent with Americans’ love affair with the automobile, tourists disdain a viable public transportation option, Honolulu’s efficient citywide bus system.

Like much of the rest of the nation, Honolulu’s underbelly has a growing homeless population. In 2016, Hawaii Governor David Y. Ige, in an effort to move homeless individuals away from popular tourist hotels, declared a state of emergency. A U.S. Housing and Development report identified Honolulu as having America’s highest per capital homelessness rate, hardly surprising given the city’s exorbitant living costs. Recently, Hawaii set up a homelessness initiative to help identify the neediest among the unsheltered and get them emergency medical attention. In the meantime, homelessness has contributed to an increased crime rate.

Population increases have also contributed to Honolulu’s sprawl. Since 2010, Honolulu’s population increased 3.7 percent from 953,000 to 989,000, an unsustainable growth pattern. Honolulu’s construction boom brought with it a significant migration increase; the U.S. Census Bureau reflects a 9.7 percent Latino population.

When asked about Honolulu’s transformation over the decades kama’ainas, native Hawaiians or long-time residents, express resignation to their diminished quality of life. Some have departed for the mainland. Last year, more than 1,000 people, net, left Hawaii.

No matter how gradually they occur, dramatic changes like those Honolulu has undergone are hard to come to terms with, especially for those who knew it back when.

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