Mō‘ili‘ili, a Honolulu Neighborhood with a Working-Class Heart

moiliili honolulu
Images by John Hook.

In learning her neighborhood’s labor history and modern-day eccentricities, a local writer manages to cope with loss and find the resilience to move forward.

It was late fall. The year was 2019. Four months had passed since I left my home and the love of my life and I was out of couches to crash on. The room I rented on Paʻani and Date streets was empty except for a squeaky futon graciously gifted from my new roommate. The commercial-grade vinyl tile floor left dust stuck to my feet. I laid down, wincing as my heels hit the frame of my new bed. “Just while I’m in transition,” I told myself.

Mōʻiliʻili was not the dream life I left, not a place I came to by choice. I was on a writer’s budget not even college kids here could survive on, but my wages from my part-time assistant job were enough to cover the rent.

That first morning I woke to the familiar city sound of a garbage truck storming the streets. Outside my jalousie windows hardworking men in neon hurried along their route, whistling at the driver to stop and go, stop and go, without any time to capture the trails of Big Gulp cups, milk cartons, and crumpled styrofoam left on the pavement from the half-open, bulging white bags they heaved into the green truck. I stepped onto the apartment lānai glassy-eyed. The sixteenth floor looked across an asphalt jungle of decaying wood-framed houses and concrete block walk-ups to the Koʻolau Mountains. I was 38 and starting over. The distance from where I stood to those mountains of green felt insurmountable.

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My roommate had gone through a painful divorce a few years earlier, so he was not surprised by my long bouts of sobbing. Most days I left before sunrise and was in bed before he got home anyway. I just wanted to walk in the dark and think about something else, anything else. Sometimes I would watch the paddlers in their outrigger canoes glide along the moonlit Ala Wai. The man-made canal built in the 1920s, now notoriously rife with trash and pollution, disassembled the communal ʻauwai system that once flowed from the top of Mānoa to the ocean, providing the waena of the Waikīkī ahupuaʻa ample water for loʻi and life.

I wondered why anyone would destroy such a sustainable food system and learned that in 1906 the then-Territorial Board of Health reported the marshlands as a breeding ground for mosquitoes and harmful for public health. Changing the drainage route of the ʻauwai essentially sucked the surrounding 19-square miles dry and diverted water from going into Waikīkī. Agricultural land transformed to urban streets and the cultural practice of communal land maintenance was eliminated. Furthermore, in 1934, construction on a new sewer system began, creating sinkholes, breaking electrical and gas lines and splitting apart sidewalks. Mōʻiliʻili, once known for its pristine waterways, was now blanketed in cement. There is no turning back now, I thought crossing the McCully Bridge.


A couple months later, I was peering into a drainage canal on Date Street when I got a call. “Hey Sarah, would you be interested in writing a cookbook featuring Hawaiʻi chefs?”I nearly dropped my phone into the water. Of course I would. A tiny moʻo slithered across the sidewalk. The neighborhood’s namesake were the only reminders of the neighborhood’s free flowing past. A time when you could look over a bridge on this path onto bright green banks of ʻakulikuli and an abundance of gobies and rainbow fish swimming down a clear Ala Naio Stream. On the corner of McCully and Algaroba Streets there is a 250-foot-wide lizard mural that depicts the legend of Hiʻiaka attacking a lizard god to save her friends. Using her skirt to shoot lightning bolts, she sliced the moʻo into pebble-sized bits. Kamo‘ili‘ili, or “pebble lizard,” was eventually shortened to Mōʻiliʻili and used to name the place tucked within the borders of Kapahulu Avenue, the Ala Wai Canal, McCully Street and lower Mānoa.

These days, all I see are toxic tilapia floating in inches of murky water down below. However, the charcoal gray coral limestone that once lined the Mōʻiliʻili Karst, which is a complex maze of streams, caverns and caves, still remains. Most entryways to this underground waterland have now been capped, including the most famous opening at The Willows. But the moʻo are still here.

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Mōʻiliʻili is full of impactful subcommunities to engage with.

I decided on the way home not to get my hopes up about the cookbook gig. I still had to interview with the publisher to see if I was the right fit. Opportunities feel like safety nets when you are falling, but they don’t always conclude with a happy ending. But, I felt I needed this life raft. I thought about the people who came before me to this neighborhood, also with opportunities and nothing to lose. In the late 1800s, Chinese immigrants arrived planting Chinese taro, rice, and lotus root, raising chickens, ducks and pigs and setting up poi factories. They originally helped strengthen lo‘i systems, but eventually moved out when ag land started to disappear. A century later, following the abolishment of contract labor with annexation, many Japanese laborers obtained leases to land here.

Fed up with plantation working conditions, Mōʻiliʻili promised the hope of a better life. They set up camps lined with plantation-style cottages and furos, owned their own farmland, found jobs, started businesses, built temples and shinto shrines, even a sumo wrestling ring, and established a socioeconomic class of their own. Many of them worked at the quarry where decades of blasting blue-basalt lava rock ensued, leaving the once Hawaiian-owned land under a wealthy coating of white dust. But, during the war in 1941, the military ripped many of them away from their families, homes and businesses, sending them to Sand Island where they endured internment camps until the war was over. Afterward, they came home and had to start all over again. There is a bright orange steel and titanium structure that stands 52 feet tall in Triangle Park. The towering 125 year- old symbol of friendship between Honolulu and Hiroshima, where the majority of Hawaiʻi’s first Japanese sugarcane contract workers immigrated, stands unnoticed in the middle of traffic.

That night I discussed the potential cookbook with my roommate. I posited, “What if I do all this work, meet the publisher’s impossible deadline, and put the rest of my life on hold to write it and nobody pays any attention to it?” His answer was the nudge I needed. “Your entire career has led you to this book,” he said. “You were meant to write it.”

I spent New Year’s Eve in bed, listening to the war zone of fireworks outside. It had been three weeks since my call with the publisher. The next morning I was on my way home from a walk when I heard squealing. As I approached the cries, I watched three men wrangle a pig out of their truck onto the driveway and stick it with a big knife. The streets were covered in red powder from firecracker residue, an uncle was in front of his home sweeping it up. This cannot be a good sign, I thought. But, two days later, while I was admiring the monarch butterflies and aunties pruning sweet potato and bitter melon leaves in the community garden, my phone rang and I had a book deal.

The next few months were filled with interviews, transcriptions and recipe testing. In the mornings, I spent hours at Glazer’s, a coffee shop on South King Street, opened by Korean- born Sam Han in 2007. Sam returned to Hawaiʻi after spending a decade in Seattle and chose Mōʻiliʻili because he wanted a college coffee shop like the ones he enjoyed in the northwest. I like the dimly lit space, with the subtle hum of 1960s jazz mixed with University of Hawai‘i students and professors, freelance writers and regulars on laptops or playing chess. I made friends with the barista the first time I went and it has been my good luck spot to write ever since.

Then, the unexpected: 36 interviews, 70 recipes and over 14,000 words later Covid-19 hits Hawaiʻi. I am laid off from my part-time job and begin collecting unemployment in March 2020. Four months later, I received an email from my publisher that read, “After much deliberation, we’ve decided to cancel this project. It makes me sad to do so, but we simply cannot afford to take such risks at this time. I am so thankful for all of your hard work and positive energy throughout this process.”

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I didn’t leave my bed for two days. The feeling of rejection from my break- up resurfaced and I no longer had the cookbook to keep me busy. When I finally rose I walked to Old Honolulu Stadium Park. In 1926, the stadium hosted football, baseball, stock car racing and concerts that lured the likes of Babe Ruth, Joe Dimaggio, Marilyn Monroe, and Elvis Presley. In 1955, the pink Bowl-O-Drome, built next door in the old stock car staging area, brought 24-hour-a-day excitement. After the city tore down the stadium, replacing it with the park, the Discover Mōʻiliʻili Festival was held here in an attempt to prolong the party, albeit once a year. I remembered all of the baseball games and festivals my partner and I used to attend in San Francisco, and the local events we discovered after moving to Oʻahu. Like this block, now primarily a houseless encampment, the excitement of those days felt likely never to return. I left feeling more grim than ever.


One of the things that helped me during this dark time was digging into community work and learning more about my neighborhood. Mōʻiliʻili is full of impactful subcommunities to engage with. I went to hear Mahina Paishon-Duarte speak a few times. Paishon-Duarte is one of the cofounders of Waiwai Collective, located inside the Varsity Building on University Avenue, along with Keoni Lee and Jamie Makasobe. Kamehameha Schools had approached them looking for a new way to uplift the lāhui. Noting a gap in ‘ōiwi business development and economy they created a coworking and event space in this location central to downtown and Waikīkī where culture, community and commerce intersect. Her talks made me think about my kuleana as a person living on an interconnected island and that this connection also has responsibilities to the land we live on and its native people. She told me she liked having the expansive mountain range behind the building. “It’s a good reminder in terms of where we are at and how we behave,” she said. Ka Waiwai, named after the wealth of water its underground caverns once produced, strives to replenish that lost sense of abundance.

She told me she liked having the expansive mountain range behind the building. ‘It’s a good reminder in terms of where we are at and how we behave,’ Mahina Paishon-Duarte said. Ka Waiwai, named after the wealth of water its underground caverns once produced, strives to replenish that lost sense of abundance.

moiliili hawaii

I joined Slow Food Oʻahu to learn more about healthy and just food systems too. The regional governor for our local chapter is Laurie Carlson who was managing Kōkua Market on South King Street in 1981 when she helped make it possible for the former nonprofit to become a cooperative with the help of Neal Abercrombie. Kōkua Market was one of the first markets to advocate a healthy diet on Oʻahu, selling organic local produce and bulk grains and teaching people how to cook with canoe crops. She told me that she remembers Mōʻiliʻili being peaceful and kind back then with fishers stopping by to sell their fresh catch, Kuhio Grill across the street serving free food to beer drinking college kids, and anti-war events held at the Church of the Crossroads. She came back in 2019, to manage the store for two more years before retiring, and found a new neighborhood. “My experience working recently taught me just how incredibly gritty and embattled it is compared to then,” she said.

Everyone in the neighborhood wonders what will happen when Kamehameha Schools, who owns a large majority of the land around South King and University, finally renovates this block. The only reason why there has not been more land consolidation in the residential areas is because of the older homeowners hanging on tight to their homes, but it is only a matter of time before Mōʻiliʻili is gentrified. Paishon-Duarte, Carlson, and Han all have safety concerns about the rising houseless population in the area. They are hopeful the changes will help bring solutions, while still preserving the charm of the old buildings and mom-and-pop shops that define this area.

Despite its success and trend appeal, none of us want the neighborhood to become another SALT at Kaka‘ako, another Kamehameha Schools development. It may no longer be much of a college town, bustling with Puck’s Alley bars and art studios with a movie theater and trolley street cars running up and down King and Beretania streets, but progressive businesses such as ʻIli ʻIli Cash and Carry, Mono, and Aloha Got Soul show growth happening in the right direction. I thought about my mornings at Glazer’s, going to Izakaya Naru for sake and sizzling taco rice, stopping for ‘awapuhi at Le’s Flower Shop, the institutions such as Fukuya Delicatessen, an okazuya open since 1939, and Uyeda Shoe Store, open since 1915. Mōʻiliʻili may not have been my dream destination, but it had treated me well and taught me to not give up.

At home, the couples fighting and dogs barking outside fade when I hear my neighbor playing the violin. The police sirens that used to pierce my ears maneuvering from call to call and the deafening modified motorcycle exhaust that sets off car alarms every morning become obsolete to the roosters crowing and mynah birds chirping as the sun rises over misty Mānoa Valley. I donated my car after it was broken into twice and discovered a generous maze of bike paths. In the afternoons, I look down from my lānai onto the iconic blue home of Waiola Store to see how long the line is for shave ice, a big fat rainbow hanging from the highest cloud. Around sunset I hear people singing karaoke in the park where nonprofit workers set up folding tables to feed the hungry people living in tents. When I look to the left, I see my old condo glimmering in the distance, a reminder of where I came from. I am 41 now. It has taken three years, but I can finally look at it now with dry eyes. As for my once- transitional home? Last year my roommate moved out, this time gifting me a real bed to sleep on. I stayed.

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