Disappearing Neighborhoods: A‘ala, 1963-67

Nov 12, 2019

Black and white photographs are offering a glimpse into Honolulu’s colorful past, at UH Mānoa’s John Young Museum. The A‘ala Park area on the west end of Honolulu was once bustling around its train station, but by the 1960’s decay had set in, and redevelopment was on the way. That’s when photographer Francis Haar decided to document the changes.

Francis Haar. Photograph. From "Disappearing Honolulu." on view through December 6, 2019 at the John Young Museum of Art, University of Hawai'i at Manoa.
Credit Francis Haar/UH Manoa

Disappearing Honolulu,” photographs by Francis Haar, continues at the UH Mānoa John Young Museum through December 6, 2019. Free parking on Sundays. 

“Manuela Boy” in this story performed by Gabby Pahinui and Atta Isaacs.

Today, A‘ala Park is starting to perk up, with financial institutions and social service agencies lining its ma uka flank. The skate park is busy, and shady trees dot the lawn, which stretches toward Liliha Street. Groups of people and their belongings dot the areas along both sides of Nu‘uanu Stream. The song, Manuela Boy by Johnny Noble, 1950, captures a less street-hardened time in Honolulu, with its refrain, “Go sleep in A‘ala park.”

Honolulu Harbor was bustling and Chinatown was already a commercial center at the end of the 19th century. A‘ala Park was built as a place of respite for country folk new to Honolulu’s urban center. The area developed gradually over a few years as Nu‘uanu Stream was contained and nearby swampy areas were back filled. By 1902, throngs were turning out for baseball games every weekend in A‘ala Park. According to historic architect Lorraine Minatoishi, a Japan Town ran from River Street to Maunakea, and from Merchant up through Vineyard Boulevard, and A‘ala Park was a nexus.

“There were parades, strikes,” says Minatoishi, “They had the very first public restroom located in that park. And across the street was the rail, that’s what made it all work.”

O‘ahu Railroad ran nearly around the island, and from Ka‘ena Point into Honolulu. You can still see the railroad station with its terra cotta roof tiles and arched façade across A‘ala Park.  Maika Pollack is director of the John Young Museum, where a visual documentary of A‘ala Park area in the mid 1960’s is currently on view.  “Disappearing Honolulu,” photographs by Francis Haar, preserves specific pleasures of everyday people, the frankly not very rich or famous. They’re full of zest, though.

Pollack says the dynamics of gentrification are better understood these days.

“I think there’s a greater awareness of the issue of gentrification,” says Pollack. “Especially with our cities that have beautiful waterfronts and how the privatization of space works to make those sites more available and accessible to some and less available and accessible to others.”

Pollack charts A‘ala Park’s history as a Japan Town hub, as the site for labor, political and other rallies and demonstrations. She says the A‘ala community was decimated after the Pearl Harbor bombing, when Japanese community members were incarcerated and businesses closed. The Railroad stopped running in 1947.

Pollack notes that those two factors, along with development of the Ala Moana shopping district, changed the A‘ala neighborhood, and made it less desirable for storefront shop owners.

Formerly bustling River Street fell on hard times, and redevelopment for the Chinatown Cultural Plaza was underway when Francis Haar shot these images, 1963-67. UH photography professor Gaye Chan curated the Haar exhibition and includes a 1968 film, “A‘ala - Life and Death of a Community,” a collaboration between Haar, Stephen Bartlett, and Kenneth Bushnell. Chan says she shows this film to all her beginning photography students.

“He’s just got a really tight compositional sense. The way he uses foreground and background relationships, framing, angle, it pulls you in by the way he organizes the information.” 

Simply, a good photograph says more. And there’s every reason for casual photo snappers to hone their skills.

“The story of A‘ala is important to remember,” says Minatoishi, “Because we’re facing it now in Kaka‘ako, and nobody realizes it because it’s slower.”

Minatoishi says Kaka‘ako is not one of the areas designated for official historical documentation prior to Rail, so it’s up to citizen historians to document what’s left now.

Haar and his comrades saw beauty in the daily life of the A‘ala neighborhood.