Transforming jungle into a gem
By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer
By Mary Vorsino
The rain starts and stops, starts and stops, as cool winds shuffle clouds over the thick, green slopes of Kalihi Valley. On the back porch of a small wooden house, within earshot of Likelike Highway and just 10 minutes from downtown Honolulu, Solomon Enos gently pushes a ti leaf stalk into a plastic pot half-filled with dirt. Once the stalk is steady, Enos sets the pot on the ground, slaps dirt from his hands and picks up a fresh sapling.
It is with this measured pace, Enos says, that a 100-acre parcel at the base of the valley will be transformed over the coming decades from an illegal dumping ground overgrown with invasive bamboo and albizia trees into a jewel of urban greenery.
Since December 2004, when Kokua Kalihi Valley got a 20-year lease for the land, hundreds of volunteers and staff members have cleared paths for future hiking trails, rooted out alien plants to make way for acres of community gardens, formed the beginnings of a hula mound and hauled away tons of trash, from tires to furniture to construction supplies.
They hope their one-of-a-kind experiment in the Islands, kick-started with $200,000 in seed money from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, becomes a model for how to cure urban blight in Hawai'i and the Mainland with community togetherness and outdoor activity.
By the end of the year, Kokua Kalihi Valley wants to open a portion of the nature park to hiking, camping and educational programs. Clearing work is still being done to make the hiking trails more accessible for families, and the site still doesn't have a parking lot.
But a handful of women who live in Kalihi already have started planting sweet potatoes, dry-land taro and cassava in the property's first fledgling garden.
Other groups have reserved plots.
"This shouldn't be the exception for how we use the land," said Enos, as he planted saplings in pots outside the park's newly renovated, 1930s-era caretaker's house, which was crumbling from age, neglect and termites just a few months ago.
Now, the home and its attached small meeting hall are clean, shiny with a fresh coat of paint and sporting a new roof, walls, door frames and public restroom. A nearby mold-covered cottage also was renovated to house an art studio and children's playroom.
Enos lives at the nature park, acting as everything from a hiking guide to a gardener.
On a recent afternoon, he wears clothes splattered with the taupe paint he used on the home. He talks over the din of cars whizzing on Likelike Highway, hidden from sight above the valley by large trees.
Gary Gill, Kokua Kalihi Valley's active-living coordinator, stands nearby, soaked with sweat and rain after helping volunteers clear out a new garden plot.
"This," Gill said, spreading his arms wide toward the hilly park, "is not going to be done if people don't want to do it. And people are dying to do it."
In a big-picture sense, organizers say, the nature center — at the tail end of Kalihi Street over a small wooden bridge — is about creating a healthier Ho-nolulu, especially for those who have little access to public greenery and suffer from health problems often associated with the ills of urban life, including obesity, diabetes and hypertension.
It is also about getting urban dwellers, many of whom live in apartments and are shut up in offices during the day, to reconnect with the land in a place just a short drive from downtown. Several public housing complexes are minutes away.
"We need to see that the determinants of health are far broader than whether a patient can come in and see a doctor," said David Derauf, executive director of Kokua Kalihi Valley, which provides healthcare to hundreds of low-income people in Kalihi.
"My role in the whole thing was simply to recognize that doing a project like this was not inappropriate for our mission," Derauf added. "We're a community organization. It's really important for us to broaden all of our ideas of what it means to be healthy."
A LONG TIME COMING
In many ways, the small Kalihi nonprofit and its loyal group of supporters have been able to do in months what city and state officials tried — and failed — to see to fruition over the course of 30 years. As far back as 1976, Kalihi Valley residents were promised that the swath of land at the end of Kalihi Street would be converted into some sort of recreation area, aimed at serving one of the O'ahu's poorest and most densely populated communities.
But big dreams produced little action, and the valley was threatened with development.
In the 1980s, Kalihi residents were able to persuade state officials to zone the property conservation land to save it. Around the same time, city officials handed the 100-acre lot over to the state in exchange for Magic Island. With little money for improvements and no interest from nonprofits, the state abandoned hopes for a park and leased the land out.
As a child, Maryrose McClelland, who served as chairwoman of the Kalihi Valley Neighborhood Board for 26 years, romped around the property, climbing among ancient Hawaiian agricultural terraces and handmade rock walls hiding in the forest above the street.
When she got onto the board of Kokua Kalihi Valley, McClelland seized a new opportunity to try to share the wonders of the acreage with all of urban Honolulu. She approached Derauf, who immediately saw how the nature park could benefit his patients. Eventually, those who get healthcare from the center will have their own garden at the park.
Since starting work on the park, Kokua Kalihi Valley has secured about $500,000 in grants and has been bombarded with in-kind donations, from fresh mulch to the use of equipment. Earlier this year, masons teamed up with students at Honolulu Community College to renovate the caretaker's house, meeting hall and studio.
The nature park was one of 25 sites nationwide to secure seed money from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation as part of its "active living by design" project, which promotes green-minded redevelopment as a means to better health and wellness in communities. Elsewhere, the grants have gone to improving pedestrian and biking safety.
In Norwich, Vt., the money helped raise awareness for a program in which doctors write prescriptions for walking. In Pennsylvania, community groups are working to develop a network of trails to connect 21 small towns in Wyoming Valley.
Gill, of Kokua Kalihi Valley, said plans for the nature center have been met with an enthusiasm rarely seen in response to a project of this scope. Kalihi residents have applauded the effort, and people keep on calling to offer help or support.
"This whole endeavor would not have been possible without hundreds of volunteers," Gill said. "It's 100 acres and a generation of work that will be required to polish this jewel. What I've witnessed is an outpouring of support, and I think that support is there at least in part because so many people have been waiting for this for so long."
VALLEY HOLDS SECRETS
In 1977, when he was a student at the University of Hawai'i, Joe Kennedy trekked to the back of Kalihi Valley at the behest of his former roommate and fellow archaeologist, Dennis Callan. Kennedy was shocked when Callan showed him what was there: A well-preserved system of ancient Hawaiian agricultural terraces, probably for taro or sweet potato.
Nearly three decades later, Gill asked Kennedy to return to Kalihi Valley in hopes of dating the terraces and an intricate series of spillage ways constructed with rock, which snake throughout the forest and start just above Kokua Kalihi Valley's recently cleared plots for gardens. At places in the valley, the stream beds are lined with rocks as high as 6 feet.
Kennedy, of Archaeological Consultants of the Pacific, said the terraces are "almost certainly pre-contact."
It's still unclear how old the spillage ways are, and whether they were built by native Hawaiians. Kennedy said he has seen nothing similar in Hawai'i, and added there is a possibility they were built by Chinese immigrants in the late 19th century.
"They are dry masonry construction, which is consistent with Hawaiian building," Kennedy said. "But we know Chinese farmers were back there. I wouldn't be surprised if somehow those spillage ways may have been their handiwork."
He added that no matter who built the structures, they are "significant historical sites." Kennedy has taken pollen and carbon samples, which are being analyzed, in hopes of dating the man-made streams. He also said that when he visited the site as a young man, he remembers seeing a heiau and other ancient Hawaiian artifacts.
He has not found the sites in his latest visit, and suspects they are either on neighboring land or were destroyed over the years. The state Department of Land and Natural Resources also is surveying part of the nature park for archaeological sites.
A final report is expected as early as next month.
Farther into the mountain, volunteers clearing the way for a hiking trail found still more surprises hidden in the trees: A dilapidated teahouse and bunkhouse built by the neighboring Daihonzan Chozen-ji Temple, which formerly leased part of the property. The teahouse and bunkhouse are near three large warehouses, apparently built by two nurseries once operated in the valley.
Derauf said the nurseries were in the valley in the 1970s and '80s. The warehouses are full of old equipment and shrouded by tall trees. Derauf said the bunkhouse and teahouse have not been used for years. They are both covered with mold and slowly deteriorating.
Enos hopes the the bunkhouse can be renovated to use for classes or large camping groups. The warehouses will be used for canoe-carving.
Reach Mary Vorsino at firstname.lastname@example.org.