Saturday, August 17, 2013

Paia Needs to Chill Out

Paia merchants are worried. Kiss frontman Gene Simmons is part of a group that owns a chain of restaurants called Rock & Brews scattered through Southern California and Mexico. Their latest location is going to open between Charley's and the Paia Tattoo Parlor on the Hana Highway.
In a story last month, unnamed merchants worried that the restaurant won't really fit in with the rest of the town. Some worry that it will bring an unwanted change to Paia.
Really? Of all towns on the island, Paia has probably seen the most rapid change over the last 20 years. Change is a part of Paia itself.
The corridor of buildings clustered around the intersection of Hana Highway and Baldwin Avenue was once Lower Paia. The center of activity actually gravitated up Baldwin Avenue near the now defunct sugar mill. Right across the street remains the massive concrete foundation for the infamous plantation company store.
The store was where immigrant field workers had to buy supplies and food for their families, mainly on credit from wages. It created a system of dependence that was extremely difficult to break.
Those who saved enough money and managed to get out of the plantation camps sometimes started their own businesses. A few started up in Lower Paia - what we today simply refer to as Paia. The early generations of Paia merchants ran eateries for workers, grocery stores, laundries, and even a movie theater.
During World War II, Paia saw an economic boom when it started to cater to the GIs. Barbershops, a few bars and the USO, which was located in the building that now houses Charley's, sprang up in the buildings lining Hana Highway. Enlisted men on leave roamed the streets looking for something to do.
After the war (and a big tsunami that destroyed a lot of the town in 1946), things quieted down. I have a picture of Paia that was taken on a sunny day in the 1960s. The storefronts, sidewalks and clear blue skies look exactly the same. There's just one huge difference: It looks like a movie set. Only three cars are parked along Hana Highway. No one's walking around. Nobody's driving through town or searching for parking spaces. It looks like a ghost town.
A few months ago, I met a friend at Charley's for a beer. He hadn't been back to Paia in decades. He started to recall his younger days in the early '70s when he went to Maunaolu College on Baldwin Avenue. His long hair gave him the unenviable look of a California hippie.
Buying beer in Lower Paia, he explained, was always hazardous for him. He recalled getting dirty looks from storefronts and locals. He remembered that if he didn't buy the beer fast enough, boys from a nearby pool hall would make their presence known. Classmates got beat up for no apparent reason. Then he chuckled as he looked around at the tired tourists trekking back from Hana and the "usual" crowd of Paia folks who relocated to Maui. In a weird way he missed Paia's rougher days.
I can remember the town only just before gentrification. I specifically recall Kihata's - a Japanese restaurant in the heart of Paia at the intersection of Hana Highway and Baldwin Avenue - where my brother and I marveled at the stuffed pheasants gathering cobwebs.
I also remember the visiting windsurfers from South America and Europe. They were never big in number and they came to town at night to rent a movie at Paia Video or buy a six-pack at Paia General Store. Who knew that they'd be the harbingers of economic change?
Nowadays the newest thing to Paia is money. The town's economic engine is fueled by high-end tourists and a lot of newcomers to the island. We have yoga studios, health food galore, pricey restaurants, and shops selling expensive clothes and dreck. A restaurant featuring classic rock, beer and some grub doesn't seem all that out of place.
So the anxiety from this generation of Paia merchants is baffling. Just look up the road.
This weekend, the descendants of the Japanese immigrants who settled into Paia to work in the sugar cane fields will make their way back to Paia. Some still live in Paia, but most don't. Nonetheless, their ancestors are buried in the little cemetery between the ocean and the highway just outside of town, and they will come to honor them. Paper lanterns and hypnotic music will fill the night. The obon festival has been part of summertime in Paia since the temple was built more than a century ago. And it will continue for decades to come.
Another restaurant won't make a difference. If Paia can survive a tsunami, sailors, hippies, windsurfers and yoga, it can handle Gene Simmons.
- July 12, 2013

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