The State of Aloha

The island looming in the rain shadow of the West Maui Mountains has a curious past. It’s an eerily quiet place. A hush falls over Lanai City and when you get out into the countryside – either along the rugged shores or along the dirt roads crisscrossing the island – the silence is pervasive and unsettling. There are no other towns, not a lot of people, and a single corporate entity casts its shadow over just about all of the affairs on the island.

Now that a new owner has bought the island, everyone is wondering what lies ahead for Lanai. Despite the changes that have been reported since Larry Ellison took over and renamed the resorts, bought an airline company, and is getting solar power to the island, one thing remains constant: The island still has just one owner.

The first person to consolidate land titles was the infamous Walter Murray Gibson. He was supposed to buy land for a Mormon colony, but he bought up land in his own name instead. When the leadership in Utah found out, Gibson was thrown out of the colony and the Mormons moved to Laie on Oahu. Gibson kept his land.

He tried just about every kind of industry available. The ranching, sugar and cattle enterprises all failed. (Gibson eventually moved on to Oahu, where he caused a great stir as King David Kalakaua’s adviser, left in disgrace, and died a pauper in San Francisco.)

But Gibson’s holdings were never broken up. They were eventually acquired by Charles Gay from Kauai. This is the same family that started the Gay-Robinson sugar plantation and still owns a lot of the Garden Isle’s leeward side. Gay surpassed Gibson’s property and bought up more and more land.

By the time Hawaii became a territory, most of the island was his. The consolidation did not go unnoticed. When the territorial government attempted to give to Gay what little acreage on the island that did not belong to him (the land was already leased to him), a dissenting Honolulu councilman tried to intervene with a lawsuit. He took his case to the Supreme Court of the United States and lost.

With no real opposition in government or from anyone else, virtually the entire island fell under the ownership of a single corporate entity. It’s been that way ever since. And every time the island changed hands from one wealthy landowner to another, everyone speculated what would become of Lanai. From the Gay family and its ranching enterprise, the Dole Pineapple Co. took over in the 1920s.

Pineapple dominated the island for nearly 70 years. The coastal towns with roots predating Western contact were abandoned. The population was concentrated into a single city in the middle of the island, and families from all over the world were shipped in to work.

Every aspect of life on Lanai was overseen by the company. Workers lived in homes owned by the company. Recreational facilities, parks, movie theaters and the gym were built and owned by the company. It was a closed company town, not unlike the mining towns in West Virginia.

Right around the time of statehood in the early 1950s, Lanai’s workforce went on strike, against the advice of their union. Pineapples rotted in the fields while workers held out by living off the land. After months of holding out, the workers turned the island into a putrid-smelling wasteland. The crop was lost and the company gave in to just about every one of the union’s demands at the bargaining table. It was a complete victory for workers.

Those days are over. The pineapple fields have given way to overgrown savannas. The paths of red dirt still snake through the high plain of the island, but there isn’t much evidence left of the once-dominant fruit. Like the concrete dock and the hidden foundations of houses, churches and edifices along

Lanai’s coast, the pineapple has receded into Lanai’s landscape. Fewer and fewer people can remember when Lanai was the Pineapple Island.

A new industry controls the island. Two resorts may have made the island an elite tourist destination, but Lanai City is still very much a company town. Nearly all residents work for the hotel company and if they don’t, they depend on its guests for business.

Larry Ellison has managed to make the already privately owned island even more private and exclusive. He bought the island, the water system, and most recently an airline company. Our mayor spent most of his State of the County speech talking about hanging out with him on his private yacht.

There may be changes coming for the island, but it’s apparent that the island will remain privately owned and a single industry will continue to dictate the fate of its inhabitants, just as it’s done for more than a hundred years.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Ilima Loomis’ “Neighbors.”

The State of Aloha

Paia merchants are worried. Kiss frontman Gene Simmons is part of a group that owns a chain of restaurants called Rock & Brews scattered through Southern California and Mexico. Their latest location is going to open between Charley’s and the Paia Tattoo Parlor on the Hana Highway.

In a story last month, unnamed merchants worried that the restaurant won’t really fit in with the rest of the town. Some worry that it will bring an unwanted change to Paia.

Really? Of all towns on the island, Paia has probably seen the most rapid change over the last 20 years. Change is a part of Paia itself.

The corridor of buildings clustered around the intersection of Hana Highway and Baldwin Avenue was once Lower Paia. The center of activity actually gravitated up Baldwin Avenue near the now defunct sugar mill. Right across the street remains the massive concrete foundation for the infamous plantation company store.

The store was where immigrant field workers had to buy supplies and food for their families, mainly on credit from wages. It created a system of dependence that was extremely difficult to break.

Those who saved enough money and managed to get out of the plantation camps sometimes started their own businesses. A few started up in Lower Paia – what we today simply refer to as Paia. The early generations of Paia merchants ran eateries for workers, grocery stores, laundries, and even a movie theater.

During World War II, Paia saw an economic boom when it started to cater to the GIs. Barbershops, a few bars and the USO, which was located in the building that now houses Charley’s, sprang up in the buildings lining Hana Highway. Enlisted men on leave roamed the streets looking for something to do.

After the war (and a big tsunami that destroyed a lot of the town in 1946), things quieted down. I have a picture of Paia that was taken on a sunny day in the 1960s. The storefronts, sidewalks and clear blue skies look exactly the same. There’s just one huge difference: It looks like a movie set. Only three cars are parked along Hana Highway. No one’s walking around. Nobody’s driving through town or searching for parking spaces. It looks like a ghost town.

A few months ago, I met a friend at Charley’s for a beer. He hadn’t been back to Paia in decades. He started to recall his younger days in the early ’70s when he went to Maunaolu College on Baldwin Avenue. His long hair gave him the unenviable look of a California hippie.

Buying beer in Lower Paia, he explained, was always hazardous for him. He recalled getting dirty looks from storefronts and locals. He remembered that if he didn’t buy the beer fast enough, boys from a nearby pool hall would make their presence known. Classmates got beat up for no apparent reason. Then he chuckled as he looked around at the tired tourists trekking back from Hana and the “usual” crowd of Paia folks who relocated to Maui. In a weird way he missed Paia’s rougher days.

I can remember the town only just before gentrification. I specifically recall Kihata’s – a Japanese restaurant in the heart of Paia at the intersection of Hana Highway and Baldwin Avenue – where my brother and I marveled at the stuffed pheasants gathering cobwebs.

I also remember the visiting windsurfers from South America and Europe. They were never big in number and they came to town at night to rent a movie at Paia Video or buy a six-pack at Paia General Store. Who knew that they’d be the harbingers of economic change?

Nowadays the newest thing to Paia is money. The town’s economic engine is fueled by high-end tourists and a lot of newcomers to the island. We have yoga studios, health food galore, pricey restaurants, and shops selling expensive clothes and dreck. A restaurant featuring classic rock, beer and some grub doesn’t seem all that out of place.

So the anxiety from this generation of Paia merchants is baffling. Just look up the road.

This weekend, the descendants of the Japanese immigrants who settled into Paia to work in the sugar cane fields will make their way back to Paia. Some still live in Paia, but most don’t. Nonetheless, their ancestors are buried in the little cemetery between the ocean and the highway just outside of town, and they will come to honor them. Paper lanterns and hypnotic music will fill the night. The obon festival has been part of summertime in Paia since the temple was built more than a century ago. And it will continue for decades to come.

Another restaurant won’t make a difference. If Paia can survive a tsunami, sailors, hippies, windsurfers and yoga, it can handle Gene Simmons.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, who grew up on Maui. His email is “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Ilima Loomis’ “Neighbors.”