Building the Dream: New York’s Long Love Affair with Hawaii

January 29, 2016 | By | Comments (0)

The elephant in the room this week—the massive one that reaches from the northeast through great swaths of the south—is the blizzard. Ah, Hawaii. Big Islanders are quick to point out that it snows there too, atop Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, but that’s not the same thing. I’ll skip posting photos of what that looks like here, since I doubt anyone wants to see those now. Instead, there’s this:

Green Sand Beach, Hawaii
That’s Papakolea Green Sand Beach, one of only four green-sand beaches in the world, three miles from Big Island’s South Point, the southernmost spot in the United States.

The northeast’s fascination with Hawaii dates back to 1809, when 19-year-old John Palmer Parker from Newton, Massachusetts, jumped off a passing ship and quickly became a favorite of King Kamehameha I. Boston missionaries then began arriving steadily from 1820, continuing into the late 1840s, and it’s not hard to find Hawaiians today who are their descendants. Yes, that’s the backstory of The Descendants.

And yet my own intrigue is with the connection between Hawaii and New York (where it snowed 26.8 inches in Central Park, just one-tenth of an inch short of the record). In my last blog, I talked about W.S. Merwin, the New York poet who moved to Maui in 1976. It’s easy to come up with other examples of New Yorkers and New York culture that have drifted west—is anyone really supposed to believe Manhattan is an island?—and Hawaii’s 1.43 million population certainly reflects immigration from around the world. Sure, Honolulu has “New York-style” bagels (with odd varieties like “strawberry bagel Danish” and “bagel puffs” that come pre-filled with chocolate and cream cheese or with adzuki bean) and kosher potato knishes and kugel that Aloha Air Cargo delivers to neighboring islands. On the Big Island, North Kohala’s town of Hawi also has Local Dish, a café and bar that opened in 2014, with corned beef and Reuben sandwiches on Jewish rye, as well as a Hawaiian Reuben featuring green papaya “kraut.” (I’m all for fusion cuisine, but I’ll take this as my opportunity to opine that pineapple chunks have no place on a pizza, including in Hawaii, which is apparently a Canadian invention.)

Back in 1960, New Yorker Laurance S. Rockefeller visited the Big Island on a scouting trip, and opened the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel five years later after swimming off its beach and seeing the volcano towering above him. At the time, its $15 million price tag made it the most expensive hotel ever built. Here’s Rockefeller (second from the left), consulting with his design team, along with a pair of early visitors, sporting Shaun Cassidy and Kate Jackson haircuts:

Laurance Rockefeller in Hawaii

Vacationers at Mauna Kea Beach Hotel

(Photos: Courtesy of Mauna Kea Resort Photo Archive Collection)

More recently, Bronx-born, Queens-raised Richard Liebmann and his wife, Natalie Young, opened Lokahi Garden Sanctuary, a wellness retreat, working organic farm and botanical garden with more than 250 species of plants in Hawi in 2003. “Dirt was something my mother had me wash off my body after playing,” Liebmann recalls of his early city days. (Like me, their daughter’s married to an Argentinean.) And lest I forget, Kohala Coast’s Kohala Divers has Long Island-born and -raised Bill Manker as one of its two captains. Manker moved from Westhampton to the Big Island in 2014, inspired by his own Long Island grandparents’ repeated visits to Mauna Kea in the 1970s. “I love Long Island, and I loved growing up on the south shore,” he says, “but Hawaii was the dream.” Today, his wife, Dana, manages a horse ranch in Waimea, and their son, Billy, is a freshman at the University of Hawaii–Manoa on Oahu. And then there’s Henk Rogers, who grew up in New York City after arriving there from Holland as a boy, before finding his way to Hawaii via Japan. His off-the-grid Pu’u Wa’awa’a Ranch operates the only hydrogen fuel-cell refilling station on the Big Island, while he’s also founder and chairman of the Honolulu-based renewable-energy advocate, Blue Planet Foundation. In addition to helping build the Mars-simulation habitat on Mauna Loa, Rogers owns the worldwide rights to a video game called Tetris.

I’m reminded of these examples of New Yorkers who have made it in Hawaii each time we’re faced by the complications of building a home 4,906 miles away. But New York has been in the Hawaiian news recently, too. Earlier this month, the New York Public Library uploaded more than 187,000 copyright-free old digitized photos, including many of Hawaii between the 1890s and 1920s. The Hawaiian ones are mostly stereograms that I’m tempted to print in color and gaze at through my Google Cardboard viewer (the one that came free with my New York Times subscription, which is the same one that got lost in the snow). Here are a few of my favorites:

Mauna Loa crater NYPL archives

Sugar cane mill photo from NYPL archives

Palm grove in color photo from NYPL archives

Queen's Hospital Grounds photo from NYPL archives

And with our own 2016 New York/Hawaii project? Right now we’re building subway lines (not really), police barriers (for pigs), and triple-super-duper high-security gates:

Construction on dream home in Hawaii

Fences in Hawaii

Fences in Hawaii

So that we can get to this:

North Kohala, Hawaii view

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