The construction elves have been hard at work on the new shopping oasis outside of town.* Even so, Pahoa still has vestiges of a cowboy town, aging traces of its sugarcane past. The main street that runs through town has a section of dilapidated wooden sidewalk flanking false front businesses: a couple of restaurants, arts and craft shops, a tattoo parlor, of course. On the outskirts of town, there are abandoned outbuildings lurking among the vines. The heads of rusting machinery watch over the parking lot at Ace Hardware, a local version of dinosaurs unable to find a passage back to the past. All of this lends the town a certain charm, a sense of permanence among an ever-changing population, at the same time an awkward, pimple-faced teenager and a doddering fool.
In 1955, Pahoa was almost destroyed by a fire. Right in the middle of town was a tofu factory that had a wood-fired furnace. The owner usually banked his fires before he went home, but that night, the fire got out of control. It burned all the way to the main alley. Luckily, a papaya farmer who had water loaded on the back of his truck saw what happened and extinguished the fire, saving Pahoa from destruction.to-hawaii.com
There’s a strong hippie/alternative lifestyle vibe here. I’m pretty sure that many of the folks who were at Woodstock in 1969–and are still alive–landed in this area. It is not uncommon to see bodies adorned with tie-dye and fringe and grey ponytails and beards framing wizened faces at the local market.
All of this lends the town an alluring charm, a sense of permanence within an ever-changing population, at the same time an awkward, pimple-faced teenager and a doddering fool. But with the new mall going in, we have a slight pall of doom hanging over us. Passing through town today, I saw a couple of businesses preparing to close. Signs in front of the development say there will be a Pizza Hut and a MacDonald’s, both places I vow never to enter, but there will also be a Goodwill and a Banzos falafel, both reasons for good cheer. They’ve installed traffic lights between the turnoff for Long’s and the entrance to the mall, just past the traffic circle. This will either prove to be a feat of fine engineering or a monumental disaster.
The development was originally supposed to open at the end of last year, but the lava decided that was a bad idea. We shall see how Madame Pele feels about all of this. As always, she gets the final say-so.
*Disclaimer: To be fair, I’m taking some liberty with the word ‘town’. The population of Pahoa is only 945 souls, so technically it’s a village. When people say they’re going to ‘town’ they mean Hilo (pop. 43,263), which is about half an hour from here, home to the airport, Walmart and Target and several supermarkets. We go there to shop and then, quick as we can, escape back to paradise.