Hawaii after 22 years: Aloha Friday is now Furlough Friday

A writer gets a chance to look at changes brought by time and recession, and to reflect on a state at once traditional and ahead of the mainland.
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Hawaiian-born President Barack Obama, back home during his 2008 caucus (George Waialeale, Obama Campaign)

A writer gets a chance to look at changes brought by time and recession, and to reflect on a state at once traditional and ahead of the mainland.

During the 1980s, my family and I lived in Honolulu. I was the minister at Church of the Crossroads, the first multi-racial church in the Islands. Now I am back in Hawaii serving as a 'ꀜtheologian-in-residence'ꀝ for a month, speaking at, among other places, the alma mater of President Obama, Punahou School.

What changes do I notice since leaving 22 years ago? And how is the recession affecting the 50th State? Here are some observations:

It used to be that Fridays here were "Aloha Friday," with aloha shirts at offices, informality and a light-hearted easing into the weekend. Now, its "Furlough Friday'ꀝ" as Hawaii'ꀙs state-administered school system has gone to a reduced four-day school week to cope with the recession for 17 weeks of the year.

How's that working? One teacher said, "Well, we're three weeks behind and three days off is just too much for many kids. They forget." I imagine it also leaves working parents scrambling to arrange child-care. Another effect is to put public schools at an even greater disadvantage with Hawaii's elaborate system of private schools, like the aforementioned Punahou.

Tourism, the major pillar of the economy, is down about 11 percent in terms of overall numbers of visitors, or about one million people fewer annually. And those who do come, proportionately more from Japan and Canada than the mainland United States, are spending less.

But there are some upsides to a changing economy. Sugar and pineapple, once the agricultural mainstays, are mostly gone (to less expensive labor and land markets), but a local food movement is growing rapidly, bringing more locally grown food to markets here and reducing reliance on food that arrives aboard container ships.

If you visit Honolulu don't miss the wonderful Saturday Farmers Market at Kapiolani Community College, on the mauka (mountain) side of Diamond Head crater at the south end of Waikiki. Hawaiian music fills the air, as do aromas of delectable local delicacies. The people are as colorful as the tropical flowers. You can buy fresh baked goods, fruit, fish, vegetables, herbs, orchids, locally grown coffee, and more. The fresh avocadoes are as big as softballs and fragrant bunches of fresh basil are just $1.

Thirty or so years ago, a Hawaiian Cultural Renaissance got under way as Native Hawaiians, joined by others, made a bid to reclaim their culture and take pride in it. Fruits of this movement are now evident. Once, the number of people who spoke the Hawaiian language was in steady decline and extinction of native speakers was a genuine fear. Now, the number of people who speak Hawaiian is actually growing.

Another fruit of the cultural renaissance has been reclamation of the eighth largest island in the chain, Kaho'olawe. For years a target for U. S. aerial military bombing practice, Kaho'olawe, though uninhabited, is historically and archeologically significant. Bombing ended ten years ago. The island has mostly been cleared of ordnance and is being restored with native flora and fauna.

In Honolulu, there are many empty storefronts in both retail areas and office complexes. The recession has driven businesses on a tight margin under water. And property crime is on the rise, now exceeding the national average, though violent crime here remains lower than national averages. Home and car break-ins are common. Some of it is drug-driven, though some think the economy is a factor, too.

As a religious observer, I note that the mega-church phenomenon has come to Hawaii as well, with several particularly large mega-churches and their leaders emerging as players in the cultural mix. Alongside these there are more traditional churches, as well as many expressions of New Age, and a large Buddhist community.

Social services have been cut drastically. Up the street from where I am staying, in a more-or-less working class city neighborhood, the McCully Recreation Center, once a beehive of youth sports, swimming, and asite of a farmer's market is empty and idle. The signs say 'ꀜReconstruction in Progress,'ꀝ but nothing seems to be happening. Nearby, the community library has had its hours and collection budget cut. So, for children in particular, the resource base and social commitment has shrunk.

This week, a non-binding resolution was passed in the state House in support of cock-fighting. Currently, cock-fighting is against the law, though a misdemeanor. The argument made by proponents of the bill in the House was interesting. They claimed that pitting the colorful fighting roosters against one another is an 'ꀜimportant cultural practice'ꀝ in many communities, one with a long history in Hawaii and elsewhere. It'ꀙs hard to know which is more politically correct, cultural diversity or animal rights?

There will be an open race for governor this fall, after Republican Linda Lingle completes two terms. Like Washington, Hawaii is really a state dominated by the Democratic Party and labor, but the immediate post-9/11 era carried Lingle, a Republican, to office. Honolulu's Samoan mayor, Muffi Hannemann, and Congressman Neil Abercrombie, both Democrats, figure to be the main contenders to replace Lingle.

Hawaii remains a special place. In some respects, it is ahead of the mainland. For example, Hawaii has long been a society where no racial or ethnic group is in the majority. And state health care legislation has long anticipated some provisions of the new national plan, for example, mandating coverage of pre-existing conditions. In other respects, Hawaii seems a more traditional society, where extended families live comfortably together, where there seems to be greater respect for elders, and there is a level of politeness and inter-personal grace that is refreshing.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.