The Riches of Kaka‘ako

Dale 1845 sketch_Kakaako Salt Pans

This neighborhood was once the fertile crossroads of ali‘i, where necessities like salt and fish were cultivated.

Text by Anna Harmon

Pictured above: “Native Church [Kawaiaha‘o Church], Oahu, from the Old Salt Pans,” 1845. Sketch by John B. Dale.

Our Kaka‘ako’s shoreline once ended at what is now Ala Moana Boulevard. Along this original coastline were bountiful fisheries, and on the nearby land were marshy mud flats where pili grass grew, canals that brought freshwater to loko i‘a, or fishponds, and salt pans—filled with ocean water at high tide and empty when low—where the crystalized mineral was harvested.

Before contact, the broader place name for Our Kaka‘ako was Ka‘ākaukukui—a designation that actually encompassed four parts of land, including a parcel at the back of Pauoa Valley, and another where the Zippy’s on Vineyard Boulevard is now. But this moniker was far from the only name used for the oceanfront area—in fact, the more names that were tied to a location, the more valued it was, and this region was known by a plethora. Take the neighborhood’s modern-day title of Kaka‘ako, which in the past was used for a more specific area near Ka‘ākaukukui and was thought to have referenced cutting pili grass to use to thatch huts. Another name, which referred to a small area near where SALT stands now, was kaloko‘eli. “Ka loko is just a pond, really an impression in the ground, and ‘eli is to dig,” explains Kamehameha Schools director of natural and cultural resources, Jason Jeremiah. “It makes sense because they would have dug these ponds, salt or fishponds. That place name may have been the name because of the actions that were happening.”

As this name implies, what is now a bustling neighborhood with eateries, apartment buildings, and creative spaces was once the quiet stop on the way to and from neighboring Hawaiian hubs, as well as the place to procure two of the most essential staples of Hawaiian life: fish and salt. While Waikīkī and the land surrounding Honolulu Harbor were bustling areas where ali‘i lived, Kaka‘ako was where the necessities were cultivated.

“From the Hawaiian perspective, salt is very important for the culture,” says Jeremiah. “It was used to preserve our food; it was used in ceremonies as a cleanser or purifier. So the availability and ability to procure those resources was very important.”

Farming salt was a complex task that utilized several features of the land, including ālia, or salt beds; drains feeding smaller channels lined with clay or leaves; and poho kai, or depressions in rocks. As saltwater ebbed and flowed with the tide, traveled through passages, or transferred to such depressions, its evaporation left behind crystals that could then be harvested. Such husbandry was in harmony with the other uses of the land, including farming fish in brackish ponds, and gathering the pili grass that grew on the marshy land.

The arrival of Western merchants, missionaries, and travelers changed these traditions irrevocably over time, first by turning Hawaiian salt into an export, and then by importing cheaper alternatives. Even still, salt was produced commercially in Kaka‘ako into the early 1930s at Kaka‘ako Saltworks, a company helmed by industrious Chinese entrepreneurs.

Time has changed the face of the place. Dredging extended the neighborhood’s shoreline, and its growing industries and community have made Kaka‘ako into its own bustling neighborhood. But the land’s bounty continues to thrive, albeit in new forms. To Jeremiah, Hawaiians have never left the area; rather, their contributions have shifted from farming salt to creating music and art. This is embodied by Pow! Wow! Hawai‘i, a festival that brings together artists to paint public murals in Kaka‘ako every year, and which has grown to global heights.

While history is still in the making here, remembering Kaka‘ako’s rich past is equally as important. Jeremiah aspires to perpetuate it through storytelling and newly chosen place names, such as that of Our Kaka‘ako’s main commercial hub, SALT. “Our ali‘i, in the historic period, they built buildings and developed Honolulu,” Jeremiah says. “I think the important thing to preserve is the knowledge of these places and the history, and continue to tell the story that way and incorporate it into the urban design today.”