The City: Honolulu

Article excerpt

Byline: Paul Theroux

Paul Theroux lives in a small town with pretensions, fresh air, and good humor.

Honolulu lies on a great sickle-shape of bay, the crescent that connects the scoop of Pearl Harbor to the crater of Diamond Head--an emblematic sight that appears in the earliest engravings, as well as the most recent photographs of the city. This combination of beach and crater cone, backed by deep-green folded cliffs, makes for a dramatic natural setting. Yet it is not a beautiful city. It is a sprawl of tumbled bungalows, a few tall buildings, and many coastal hotels.

Any city planner with foresight would have taken advantage of the dramatic serenity of this seafront and fashioned a corniche, a road along the ocean, as in Alexandria and Nice and Eastbourne, to give drama and beauty to the city. But Honolulu wasn't planned--it was improvised by philistine businessmen, real-estate developers, land grabbers, opportunists, me-firsters, and schemers. Their demand for seafront property meant a building boom that blocked the view. The boom goes on. The ocean is invisible from most of Honolulu's streets. Fortunately, all beaches in Hawaii are public: you can sit on the sand or swim in front of the most expensive beachfront house or chic hotel.

The smash of sunlight on the sea brightens Honolulu, which has the best weather and cleanest air of any city in the world. Locals seldom remark on the weather unless it's raining; they love the lights; the pretty song "Honolulu City Lights" is one of the city's anthems. But on rainy days Honolulu is radically altered, and its face made plain. While New York and Paris are more beautiful in bad weather, Honolulu in the rain is a prosaic, not to say ugly place. Its few lovely buildings are its oldest, and are rather small, and hidden. Its most venerable building, Washington Place, home of the governor, is a white candy box behind a hedge--lovely, but scarcely visible. Honolulu has no municipal architecture of any beauty; its hideous traffic makes it unfriendly to pedestrians; just a few streets define its downtown.

The city is sprawling and hard to define. Look closer and you see not a city but a collection of seaside neighborhoods, backed by the folded cliffs and ancient lava flows; the creases now softened by the greenest foliage imaginable. I live in a small rural settlement some distance away, but I like Honolulu because it seems more a small town with pretensions than a real city. …