Photo: Punchbowl Crater
A view of Punchbowl Crater from the Kakaʻako/Kewalo area in 1885. The area was renowned for its wetlands and fishponds. - Photos: Bishop Museum

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Change came to all of Hawaiʻi after the “discovery” of our islands by British explorers, but few places in our pae ʻāina were as quickly or as profoundly affected as Kakaʻako.

Kakaʻako is not the area’s original name; place names often change with the passing of time.

The area we now call Kakaʻako, located on the south shore of Oʻahu between downtown Honolulu and Waikīkī, is actually part of two ʻili (smaller land divisions within an ahupuaʻa): Kaʻākaukukui to the west and Kukuluāeʻo to the east. And the area just ma uka was known as Kewalo. It was part of a network of important wahi pana and a place of significance in Hawaiian society where aliʻi and kahuna alike maintained residences.

The inland coastal areas of Kakaʻako and Kewalo were wetlands, distinctive for their brackish marshes, fresh water springs and salt ponds. Kalo and ʻuala were abundant in the fertile ma uka lands.

But the area was most famous for its rich fisheries. It was part of a large system of fishponds, reefs and productive fishing grounds that extended along Oʻahu’s south shore from ʻEwa to Maunalua. Activities along the coastal waters and reefs included fishpond farming, paʻakai (salt) harvesting, limu gathering and all types of fishing, from nearshore to deep sea.

To this day, Kewalo is known for fishing.

Salt-making and subsistence fishing activities continued in Kakaʻako during the early and mid-19th century much as they did in the previous century. But the harbor at Honolulu drew whaling and merchant ships, and, along with new ideas, they brought new diseases which devastated Kānaka Maoli. Kakaʻako played an important role in that grim history.

In February 1853, smallpox arrived in Hawaiʻi aboard the Charles Mallory, an American merchant ship sailing out of San Francisco. As the disease ravaged the population, a smallpox quarantine camp and hospital were set up in Kakaʻako. By the time the epidemic abated in January 1854, more than 5,700 people, most of them Native Hawaiians, had perished. Because there were so many deaths, many of the victims were buried at Kakaʻako in shallow graves.

Kakaʻako continued to be used to quarantine individuals with deadly diseases. In 1881, a hospital and receiving station for Hanson’s Disease (leprosy) patients was built there and in 1899, when bubonic plague swept through Chinatown, infected patients were moved to a quarantine camp at Kakaʻako.

By the end of the 19th century, increasing urbanization in Honolulu began changing the appearance of Kakaʻako.

A landscape dominated for centuries by fishponds and wetlands was irrevocably transformed. It began with the dredging and deepening of Honolulu Harbor in the 1840s. This type of activity continued well into the 20th century. Extensive dredging and infilling of reefs, fishponds and wetlands extended the Kakaʻako shoreline, enabling the construction of commercial businesses and forever altering the geography and ecology of the region.

In the decades that followed, Kakaʻako was the site of a massive garbage dump, two incinerators (one built in 1905 and the second in 1930) and a sewage pumping station. Modern Kakaʻako Makai sits on land that was formed by infilling the pristine reef with dredged material, debris, trash and incinerator ash.

As the wetlands disappeared and the fishponds were filled, the area became a prime location for large-scale industrial uses such as the Honolulu Iron Works, lumber yards, a tuna cannery and a flour mill.

And as Honolulu became larger, busier and more prosperous, people flocked to the urban center from rural areas looking for opportunity, many of them ending up in Kakaʻako. By the turn of the century, the periphery of Kakaʻako became known for its poverty as shantytowns of mostly Native Hawaiians were established at “Blue Pond” and “Squattersville.”

In the 1920s, the Territorial Government razed the settlements at Blue Pond and Squattersville, forcing more than 700 impoverished Native Hawaiians to move.

A multi-ethnic working-class community that included Hawaiians, Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese and Filipinos – described by some as an “urban plantation village” – was also established at Kakaʻako during the latter part of the 19th century.

For decades this community thrived, and the people who grew up there have fond memories of a tight-knit community bound not by culture, but by shared experiences. By the mid-20th century, Kakaʻako had a population of about 5,000 and boasted three movie theatres, six schools, churches, poi factories, sake breweries, rice mills, laundries, bakeries, groceries, and all sorts of stores.

In the 1950s, rezoning of the neighborhood displaced most of the community and by the 1960s few remained. Warehouses and factories, quonset huts and auto repair shops replaced homes, transitioning Kakaʻako to a dedicated industrial area.

Things began to shift again in the 1970s. The landmark Honolulu Iron Works shut down after more than 120 years, and planners recommended transforming Kakaʻako from an industrial center to an area of “mixed-use” to include residential buildings, restaurants and shops. By the end of the decade, some 2,000 people, mostly renters, were living in Kakaʻako.

Today, Kakaʻako is being revitalized and developed into a trendy, mixed-use urban community. The Howard Hughes Corporation is the largest developer in Kakaʻako. Their planned development, Ward Village, will include 4,000 high-rise luxury residences and more than a million square feet of retail and commercial space on 60 acres of land.

Another key developer in Kakaʻako is Kamehameha Schools. They are developing 29 acres there that will include commercial space and high-rise market-price residences, However, Kamehameha’s plans also include affordable and workforce housing on two of its nine parcels.

In 2012, OHA was conveyed 30 acres at Kakaʻako Makai as a settlement for money owed to OHA by the state for Public Land Trust (ceded land) revenues. Kakaʻako Makai is also the location of the Gateway and Waterfront Parks, the John A. Burns School of Medicine, the Children’s Discovery Center and the 53 By The Sea restaurant.

As OHA plans for the mixed-use development of its lands at Kakaʻako Makai, leadership is committed to the importance of balancing economic prudence with the cultural, social and spiritual values of our kūpuna in order to preserve the connection between our past, our present and our future.

Mahalo nui to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs’ Research Department.