Aliamanu in Moaunalua – Salt Lake, Honolulu – America’s Densest Asian Neighborhood

I’ve lived in a couple of neighborhoods and towns on Oahu. Waikiki, Kailua, Lanikai, Punchbowl, Punalu’u, Manoa, and since 2017, the Salt Lake neighborhood.

I never thought I would live in Salt Lake – not Salt Lake City, Utah nor Salt Lake – the neighborhood in West Honolulu in which I currently reside. It’s not because of problems in either place – I had a great time in Salt Lake City and made some great friends there – and honestly, I never really thought about Salt Lake in Honolulu much at all – I just drove by it if I was going to the H3 or coming back to town from a North Shore trip. Salt Lake was firmly in my mind as a place intimately connected with ‘the bases’ meaning Pearl Harbor Naval Base, Hickam Air Force Base, Fort Shafter Army base, and Camp Smith – a US Marine Corps installation which holds the headquarters of the United States Pacific Command. In addition to those – there is Red Hill – the strategic fuel reserves located deep underground which the Japanese forgot to bomb when they hit Pearl Harbor (it probably cost them the war because if they had hit it, the US fleet would have been paralyzed for much longer).

Up on the hill is the Tripler Army Hospital, home of the VA in Hawaii and nearby are the cities of Aiea (the only town in the US with no consonants) and Pearl City – both of which I always intimately associated with the bases. In my mind – those cities and the Salt Lake and Red Hill neighborhoods were most likely filled with military families, base housing, families who worked on base, and the kind of low rent businesses I used to see around Marine bases – discount furniture, tattoo shops, strip bars, and car lots.  Certainly, there is an element of all of that in the surrounding areas – but in truth – Salt Lake is far different than I expected even if it is surrounded on all sides by military bases, military housing, and freeway interchanges. And we have no shortage of rainbows.

First of all, let me point out that there is nothing touristic about this neighborhood. It sits between the airport on the ocean side and the beautiful pink buildings of Tripler on the mountain side. There is Pearl Harbor to the West and Makiki to the East. I include the Moanalua neighborhood as a part of Salt Lake since the two are intimately connected with Moanalua High School. Salt Lake  is a densely packed high rise neighborhood with golf courses on either side of it –  the Navy Marine Course and the other the Honolulu Country Club. There is one little shopping center with a half dozen unremarkable restaraunts, a McDonalds, a small Safeway, and a Longs drugs. That’s it. A couple of schools and lots and lots and lots of apartments in high rise buildings.

The nearby hill, called  Alia’manu by the Hawaiians (salt crusted bird) and Aliapa’akai (Crusted Salt Lake) was said to have been created by Pele on her first circuit of the islands as she looked for a home. It was a salt crusted pond where prized salt was harvested and traded throughout the Hawaiian Islands – the red dirt and salt were said to have been dropped by her as she rested and her bottom created the lake. The salt was valued so highly by the Chinese for making incense that the lake itself was completely depleted by 1900s and ceased to be even a pond.  Before that time, the shores and bottom of the lake were covered with crystal blocks of salt – it was considered the chief wonder of Oahu and several early visitors even described it as the most remarkable site in the islands. All that is left today is a pond on the golf course of the Honolulu Country Club – not salty at all and no blocks of crystal. A comprehensive history can be found on Peter T. Young’s blog.

Salt Lake had a reputation for high crime in the 1990s and 2000s – a reputation which appears to have been largely wiped away. According to several demographic samplings online – Salt Lake is the most densely packed Asian neighborhood in the entire United States – a fact that I can’t confirm but which my wife assures me must be true. She points out that I’m virtually the only white person she sees here, something I don’t really notice not being able to see myself – actually, I think I tend to think of myself as a brown person and it is usually a bit of a shock to see myself in the mirror or in photos – so perhaps she is right. To be fair though, I do sometimes see white people here when I’m not looking in the mirror, but not very often.

The population here is mostly Japanese with a strong mix of Chinese and Filipino and a sprinkling of Hawaiians, Koreans, African Americans, and haoles like me. People are friendly but keep a respectful distance – there are no welcome wagons of neighbors knocking on your doors when you move in.

To sum up, I like Salt Lake. It’s central to everything and feels safe and comfortable. I like that there is no touristic reason for people to visit. The weather is nice but can get a bit hot at times. There are a couple of nice parks, decent schools (by Hawaiian standards) and we even get an annual homecoming parade from Moanalua High School. The neighborhood is split between the houses and the high rises and it is circled by busy highways and surrounded by base housing and military bases. My one big complaint is that there is no safe way to ride my bicycle to and from our neighborhood without crossing busy highways that lack bike lanes. Actually, I do have another complaint – it would be nice if we had a farmer’s market here but the Aloha Stadium Swapmeet is not far and usually has a wide variety of fruits and vegetables.

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