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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 16, 2004

Lucky they live Palolo

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

Loa Faimealelei, left, greets Darryl Tomita at the Palolo Valley District Park gym.

Rebecca Breyer • The Honolulu Advertiser

Forget selling houses. There was a time not so long ago that folks in Palolo Valley couldn't even get people to come visit.

"The reputation was bad," said Loa Faimealelei, 32. "There was a lot of gang activity, a lot of crime. People from outside wouldn't come into the valley. They were afraid.

"Before, you say 'Palolo' and ..." Faimealelei raised his hands defensively to finish his point.

Still, Faimealelei, who was born in American Samoa and grew up in the Palolo Valley Homes public housing complex, said the neighborhood's reputation wasn't the whole story.

Where outsiders saw only drugs and violence, Faimealelei and other long-time residents saw a quiet community where older, middle-class families lived in relative harmony with struggling immigrants trying to establish themselves.

Where some viewed Palolo as the black sheep in an East Honolulu family that includes Kaimuki, Kapahulu, St. Louis Heights and Manoa, others knew that under the right circumstances the neighborhood's time would come.

And it has.

Business neighbors Noelani Block, left, of Noelani Gallery and Picture Framing, and Samira Norman of Samira's Country Market hug on 10th Avenue.

Rebecca Breyer • The Honolulu Advertiser

In the past few years, community activism, renewed business investment and a white-hot housing market have led to a radical reconsideration of much-maligned Palolo.

"There has been a revitalization over the last five or six years," said state Rep. Calvin Say. "It's catching up to Manoa and Kaimuki. 'Palolo' now has a very positive connotation.

"There are more families moving in," he said. "Some of the older residents are dying out, and their children are moving back. There are more renters, too. I'm proud to say that the complexion of the valley has changed."

The transformation has been most evident along the two main corridors into the 2,584-acre valley — Palolo Avenue and 10th Avenue, where scores of properties have been sold and upgraded in the past two years. The World War IIiera single-family homes that used to line the valley have been replaced by warehouse-size, two-story structures that sell for upwards of a million dollars.

"Palolo is hot," said Cinda Glor, a Realtor associate with Coldwell Banker Pacific Properties. "You can't touch Manoa or Kaimuki anymore, so people are coming over to the next area."

Al Faimealelei, right, works part-time as an attendant at PÅlolo Valley District Park, where his dog, Prince, and nephew, Kona Faimealelei, 6, play in the background. Faimealelei remembers when the neighborhood had such a bad reputation, residents couldn’t even get friends to visit.

Rebecca Breyer • The Honolulu Advertiser

Glor said improvements in the public housing areas at the center of the valley have given investors more confidence about buying.

"Palolo is much safer than it used to be," Glor said. "There aren't as many dark spots. I don't have clients calling and saying that there's an ice house next door.

People who wouldn't come here five years ago are coming now."

The change is leaving some residents with mixed feelings.

As real property values have shot up, so too — at a static rate — have property taxes. That's great news for those intending to sell, not so great for longtime residents like Clyde Amaral.

"Sell?" he said. "... no! What for?"

Amaral, 75, was born and raised on the Ninth Avenue property where he still resides. This year, his lot was assessed at $362,100, some $43,000 more than last year and more than $112,000 higher than in 1998.

The valley is divided at Pakui Street for real property assessment purposes. From 2003 to 2004, assessments in both sections rose by an average of 10 percent, according to the city Real Property Assessment Division.

Amaral said he can absorb the increase in property taxes, but worries that other longtime residents could be squeezed out.

"It's been going up every year," he said. "The way it's going, we're going to get killed with property tax."

Fairways, artillery fire

Amaral remembers when Palolo was known more for its golf course, rock quarry and dairy farms than its high-priced homes.

Emmeley Nakasenh cooks at Keo's Sundry, which occupies the former site of Marujyu Market and Frank's Palolo Market. She and her husband, originally from Laos, took over the space in July.

Rebecca Breyer • The Honolulu Advertiser

"When I was young, there weren't that many houses," he said.

"All that," Amaral said, pointing toward the back of the valley, "was kiawe brush and monkeypod."

His parents, immigrants from Portugal, bought the Palolo property just before he was born.

There was a golf course where Palolo Valley District Park now stands, he recalled. Near that was a military installation where anti-aircraft guns would sometimes sound.

"Yeah, it was loud," he said. "Sometimes the windows would rattle."

Amaral also recalls when public housing projects opened in Palolo and Manoa after World War II.

"Manoa had rich guys who could hire attorneys to get rid of theirs," he said. "We didn't."

Over the course of about five decades, the Palolo Homes and Palolo Valley Homes housing projects came to define the valley for many outside — rarely in a positive way.

Throughout the 1980s and '90s, gang violence, property crime and other problems — much of it centered on the public housing areas — overshadowed everything else that happened in the valley.

"It was pretty rough when I was growing up," said Faimealelei, who works part-time as an attendant at Palolo District Park. "I wasn't a bad guy, but I used to hang out (with gangs). They were my friends and that's all there was. We used to do a lot of crazy stuff."

In 1997 and 1998, two tragic incidents in Palolo Valley inspired a wave of community activism, which in turn has sparked a historic turnaround in the valley.

On Oct. 16, 1997, a fire broke out at a two-story Palolo Avenue home, killing seven members of the Faumuina family.

Clyde Amaral, 75, was born and raised in the Ninth Avenue home where he still lives. He says property taxes have shot up with the real estate market, threatening to squeeze out longtime residents.

Rebecca Breyer • The Honolulu Advertiser

Three months later, on Jan. 22, 1998, Rodney "Banks" Laulusa, a Ka'a'awa resident visiting friends at Palolo Valley Homes, was shot and killed by three police officers after brandishing two knives. Witnesses claimed officers used excessive force, and many residents objected to the intense police presence in the valley immediately after the incident.

"Things could have gotten way worse that night," said Dahlia Asuega, a member of the Palolo Valley Homes tenant association at the time. "(The police) were out there with rifles and helicopters aiming guns at our community. We knew in our minds that we couldn't let this thing blow up."

With the same solidarity they showed in consoling each other after the October fire, public housing tenants and other Palolo residents channeled their anger about the Laulusa shooting into a concerted effort to work closer and communicate better with police. They also devoted themselves to developing and supporting community-based programs aimed at providing better guidance and education for area kids.

"In Palolo, we've always been close-knit, and we've always tried to respond to things as a community," said Asuega. "It was really important for us to build stronger relations with the police to make sure something like that never happened again."

Honolulu Police Department officers now maintain a satellite site at Palolo Valley Homes. There's also an active Neighborhood Watch program.

Darlene Nakayama, chairwoman of the Palolo Neighborhood Board, called the shooting "a shocking turn in the road" for the valley.

"I think after that happened, everybody felt they needed to be more accountable, that we needed to be more responsible for our own neighborhood," she said. "People like (Asuega) have changed the neighborhood for the better."

In addition to helping organize the annual Palolo Pride celebration and other events, Asuega was instrumental in garnering support for Mutual Housing Association of Hawai'i, a nonprofit organization, to acquire the Palolo Homes portion of the housing project from the state in March 2002.

That acquisition made possible a $13.5 million interior and exterior renovation of the 306-unit complex. (The other section of the public housing project, Palolo Valley Homes, which is federally financed, remains untouched. Mutual is discussing a possible acquisition of that section's 118 units with residents.)

Asuega, who now works as Mutual's resident services manager, said the company's emphasis on tenant-initiated programs works well with what is going on in the valley. Palolo Homes now houses a computer training center and works with the University of Hawai'i and Kapi'olani Community College to provide tutors and other advisors for residents.

After-school programs

Palolo has other heroes, of course. Even before the fire and the shooting, residents rallied around the efforts of parks and recreation director Joe Yasutake, who, with Faimealelei, developed several after-school and summer programs for children and teens in the area.

"He and Loa have helped turn this valley around," said Yasutake's son, Joseph. "It's safe for kids to come down (to the gym) now. It's even safe for me to come down."

Mutual's executive director David Nakamura said people also back Palolo Elementary School principal Ruth Silberstein, who has been trying to improve academics in a student population composed primarily of children from low-income households, many of whom speak English as a second language.

Palolo's resurrection is also evident in the return of neighborhood businesses. For the first time in more than a decade, the few business spaces in Palolo are filled.

Rainbow Market opened on the former Rainbow Mart site on Palolo Avenue a few years ago. Two blocks up, at the former site of Marujyu Market and Frank's Palolo Market, is the new Keo's Sundry owned by William and Emmeley Nakasenh.

The space sat unoccupied for several years before the Nakasenhs moved in last July. Originally from Laos, they sell American and Laotian sundry items as well as poke and other prepared foods.

"The area is lower-income, with a lot of seniors," Emmeley Nakasenh said. "We thought a small business like ours could be a convenience to them."

Next door, in another oft-vacant space, Palolo Drive-Inn is owned and operated by Danny Zhang. Three years into a seven-year lease, Zhang said he gets steady business from residents.

"It's a quiet valley," he said. "It's way different from Manoa."

On 10th Avenue, a couple of blocks off Wai'alae, business neighbors Wayne Takushi (North Shore Grinds), Noelani Block (Noelani Gallery and Picture Framing), and Norman and Samira Norman (Samira's Country Market) find the overflow traffic from Kaimuki and peace of the valley make a good business combination.

Takushi, who grew up a few blocks away, has seen a demographic shift in the valley.

"Before, it used to be more middle-income," he said. "From what I can see now, it seems like a lot of the people buying houses are more well-off."

Palolo residents like to point out that the valley comprises several distinct areas. Gentleman farmers tend small plots in the mountainous area designated for agricultural use. Many Japanese-American World War II veterans have houses in the expanse between Palolo and 10th avenues. Newer investors have lined the two main streets with duplexes, renting them to students and faculty from UH or to small families.

Joe Lum, a member of the Palolo Lions Club, was among the last of the original investors to buy into the Carlos Long subdivision, just beyond the public housing area at the back of the valley, in 1950.

He said improvements in the public housing area have been positive for the whole valley.

"It used to be terrible," he said. "No one wanted to come. Now it's much better."

Nakayama, the neighborhood board chairwoman, bought her house on Carlos Long in the summer of 2001, paying $650,000 for a subdivided two-property lot.

"Then 9/11 happened, and I thought prices would go down," she said. "But they didn't. They kept going up. Now I could sell one part for $650,000."

Nakayama said her property taxes have increased about $200 in the past year.

"It's manageable," she said.

Nikki Christiansen, who grew up in Palolo Valley Homes and now shares a one-bedroom apartment on Palolo Avenue, is managing, too. But she's not sure how much longer that will last.

Christiansen's rent increased for the second straight year, from $600 to $700 a month.

"I'm worried," she said. "People are selling and the prices are getting high. It's getting hard for renters."

Still, as one Realtor said, supply is down, demand is still up and interest rates are still good. Translation: The bubble hasn't burst yet.

Faimealelei, who lost his wife, Trina, to cancer in January, said whatever happens, he hopes he'll be able to raise his two daughters in the valley he calls home.

"This is a good place," he said.

Reach Michael Tsai at 535-2461, or e-mail at mtsai@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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