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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Thursday, August 26, 2004

Loving & living Liliha

By Mike Leidemann
Advertiser Staff Writer

LILIHA — Just minutes from downtown Honolulu, Liliha is a world away.

Emma Loquiao, right, has worked at Liliha Bakery, famous for its cocoa puffs, for 11 years.

"For as long as I can remember, there's never been any trouble around here," said George Minoru Tanaka, a Liliha resident since 1936. "It's always been people helping people."

Bob's Grocery sits near the corner of Liliha and Kuakini, the neighborhood's commercial crossroads.

Photos by Andrew Shimabuku • The Honolulu Advertiser

Not a Starbucks, Jamba Juice or Taco Bell in sight. No strip malls or skateboards. Instead, it's full of stores and buildings that have gone unchanged for decades: Jane's Fountain, Cut-Rite Barber Shop, Bob's Grocery, Liliha Bakery.

Liliha might be the last of the old-time places on O'ahu. The population remains elderly and predominantly ethnic; the pace, slow and pedestrian. The tallest building and largest employer isn't an office tower or parking garage; it's a hospital.

"It's the kind of place everybody comes back to sooner or later," said Clara Wakuzawa, who has been cutting hair in the same one-room shop on Kuakini Street for the last 46 years.

For all its rich history and family feel, though, there's not much sense of community here. Beyond its namesake street, Liliha's 20,000 residents often identify themselves more with surrounding areas: Nu'uanu, Kalihi, Palama, Lanakila, Alewa Heights.

Still, in more than 100 years, no one ever suggested the place needed its own festival.

Until now.

"This is a swan story," said Rep. Corinne Ching, who is spearheading the first ever "I Love Liliha" festival set for the grounds of Lanakila School on Saturday. "Liliha is a Cinderella that hasn't been treated well in the past. Now people are saying it's time to straighten things up."

Ching hopes the festival will pump new life into the old place, making it better without making it over.

"It just needs a little sprucing up," said Ching, R-27th (Liliha, Pu'unui). "A few trees, some fresh paint and a little trim here and there would work wonders."

Part of Liliha's charm is its faded glory.

Cultural blends

Named for High Chiefess Kuini Liliha, once the governor of O'ahu, the area just northwest of the downtown has a history as long and varied as the generations of immigrants who settled here, trying to be close to Honolulu's jobs and far enough away to live affordably.

It's the kind of history that keeps being born again in distinctively Hawaiian ways.

  • Liliha is said to be the birthplace of saimin, and the home of the first plate lunch place. The original L&L Drive-In, now a national chain, opened on Liliha Street in 1959.
  • It's home to many religious denominations, from the Ma'mae'e chapel (1863) to the Young Buddhist Association (1900) to St. Luke's Episcopal Church (1903) to the Korean Christian Church (1918).
  • It also might be the state's healthiest neighborhood, with Kuakini Health Systems, St. Francis Medical Center, Rehab Hospital of the Pacific and almost two dozen other medical clinics and therapy centers.

The area seems forever cut off from modern high-rise Honolulu, thanks in large part to the H-1 Freeway, which in the early 1960s blasted its way through the lower part of Liliha, created a permanent line of demarcation.

On one side there's the 93,610-square-foot Liliha Square Shopping Center, a retail/residential condo complex that opened in 1975. On the other side, there's the town time forgot.

"Ironically, that's what makes so us so rich," Ching said. "Part of our strength is the weakness that we were never developed. Bad decisions were made; probably the worst was the freeway, but that helped keep Liliha small."

The first annual 'I Love Liliha Festival'

• 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday

• Lanakila Elementary School, 717 N. Kuakini St.

• The festival includes games, learning exhibits, a health fair for seniors, and vendors selling arts, crafts and local food.

• For more information: 545-3080 or 234-0404

"I like small," said Thocthi Doan, who fled her native Vietnam in 1982, spent time in refuge camps in Thailand and the Philippines, and a decade later ended up running the tiny Bob's Grocery near the intersection of Liliha and Kuakini streets, the neighborhood's commercial crossroads.

Open to the sidewalk, the store sells a mixture of flowers and local produce (apple bananas, breadfruit, papaya, yams, chili peppers) and a sampling of other necessities of life, from hair barrettes to hard liquor.

"It's convenient, friendly and cheaper than anywhere else," said customer Todd Sako, who drove from Pauoa to buy a small bouquet of tropical flowers one day. It wasn't clear if he was talking about the grocery store or all of Liliha.

Doan said many of her customers have been coming for years. (Nearly half the households in Liliha have at least one person over age 64; by contrast, just 30.4 percent of the homes have someone under 18.)

While most of Liliha's children eventually move away to Salt Lake, Kapolei or San Francisco, they never fully cut their ties to the area, Wakuzawa said.

"They go away, get married, get a home, but they always come back. It's important for them to show their kids the place of all their old memories," Wakuzawa said one morning while cutting the hair of five care-home residents, age 80 to 98, many of whom had their own Liliha memories.

"You could take a bus to the stores, get a haircut, buy all the food you needed at the delicatessen and take it home to eat," said 98-year-old Violet Middleton.

You still can.

Spirit of caring

Clara Wakuzawa gives 82-year-old Lillian Lau a haircut at Cut-Rite Barber Shop, one of the mainstays in Liliha.

Clara Wakuzawa gives 98-year-old Violet Middleton a trim at Cute-Rite. Wakuzawa has kept the one-room shop for 46 years.

Thocthi Doan has run Bob's Grocery since 1992. She fled her native Vietnam in 1982 and eventually ended up in Liliha.

Photos by Andrew Shimabuku • The Honolulu Advertiser

Back in 1936 when George Minoru Tanaka moved to Kuakini Street from Vineyard Boulevard to helped his family grow taro and watercress around one of the area's many springs, the neighborhood was "already a very special place."

"For as long as I can remember, there's never been any trouble around here. It's always been people helping people," said Tanaka, who gave up a promising boxing career to work as a chauffeur and bodyguard for the Dillingham and Farrington families. "They helped me then, and that's why I help people now."

Today, Ike Brown is among the Liliha residents who keep that spirit alive.

A city worker who grew up in upper Liliha, Brown spends most evenings as a volunteer caretaker for Kunawai Springs Park, once a sacred healing place for Hawaiian ali'i.

Today the small park is a place where grandparents come to push children on swing sets and talk story around a few worn picnic tables under a huge monkeypod tree. A local church even has its own Liliha version of the city's Sunset on the Beach: providing free monthly outdoor movies in the park.

"We try to keep it nice for the children," Brown said. "It's peaceful and cool, just like always."

Tops in comfort food

If the pond is the heart of the neighborhood, Liliha Bakery is its soul and stomach.

For 54 years, the bakery has been the scene of nonstop eating, serving up 6,000 of its signature cocoa puffs every day, and running its old-fashioned 18-seat counter and grill 24 hours a day.

"It's a throwback to days of good old-fashioned comfort food," said former Advertiser restaurant critic Matthew Gray, who now makes the bakery one of the featured stops on his Hawai'i Food Tours "Off the Beaten Path" circuit. "There's always great energy and food here, no matter when you come."

Eighty-eight-year-old Freda Miramatsu said she's eaten lunch at the bakery counter just about every weekday for the last 20 years.

"You can't compare the food and people to anywhere else," said Miramatsu, who is retired from running her own restaurant, Edy's Drive-in in Waipahu.

For all its timelessness, Liliha is evolving.

The city planning office estimates the number of people and housing units will grow slowly in Liliha over the next 25 years. It uses the neighborhood as an example in some of its presentations on how urban growth can be done smartly by adding more trees, sidewalks, commercial storefronts and low-rise residential units without destroying the old Liliha feel.

The neighborhood is seeing more and more two-story homes being built on family lots as parents try to provide living space for their children, said Tom Shinsato, a real estate agent in the area.

"It's really stable. People just don't want to leave. Like everyplace else, the values have gone up substantially," he said, noting that the average price of a single-family home has reached about $500,000.

Other things are happening, too.

Prices have gone up from the original $1 at the Cut-Rite Barber shop ($10 for regular visits; $15 if you let it grow long); the first Filipino restaurant opened a few years ago; Liliha bakery has added blueberry scones to its line of more traditional baked goods; and maybe most encouraging of all, an old, dried up spring in the Kunawai park recently started gurgling to the surface again.

"I don't know what happened. It just came back on its own this summer," Brown said.

Just like Liliha.

Reach Mike Leidemann at 525-5460 or mleidemann@honoluluadvertiser.com.