Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?
I am examining the role of visual arts in the development of Washington, D.C. during the twentieth century. My previous books examined the intersection between popular culture and urban history. Hollywood Bohemianslooks at transgressive sexuality in the understanding of Hollywood during the 1920s and 30s. Capital Sporting Grounds analyzes proposals for built and proposed stadiums in the Washington, D.C. landscape.
How do you make time for your independent research around your day job at the National Archives? Do you stick to a writing routine, or is every day different?
Although not in a routine way, I usually devote some time to research, reading or writing on historical topics during the evening or on weekends. The challenge is balancing that with spending time in the present with my cats and my husband.
What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either that you have edited or from other presses or journals?
Because of my time limits, I don’t do much reviewing and often only read about books pertinent to the subject I am writing about. However, recently I enjoyed reviewing Benjamin Lisle’s Modern Coliseum: Stadiums and American Culture.
What advice do you have for scholars of urban history who are considering pursuing work as archivists?
Currently, archives appear to be most interested in hiring people with strong training in information services and library training along with a history background.
What do you think is more likely to happen first: an NBA championship win by the Washington Wizards, or achieving peaceful diplomatic relations between the U.S. and North Korea?
At this moment: U.S. and North Korean peace but the Capitals did remove part of the D.C. curse.
Distinguished urbanist Matthew G. Lasner of Hunter College recently completed his term as Exhibitions and Media Bibliographer for the UHA newsletter, and in his outgoing comments he shared some wry and accurate advice with editor Hope Shannon: “I’m certain far more of our members would be interested in digital projects, new websites and tools, etc. than in a list of exhibitions that have already closed (which what I’ve been serving up the last several years).”
In his remarks, Professor Lasner actually paralleled our internal discussions at The Metropole. With the explosion of the interwebs, digital scholarship has taken on a new life and importance within the field of urban history and in the culture more broadly. There are so many worthwhile online sources, so how does a historian began to tackle them?
The Metropole, a digital project in its own right, wants to be part of the solution, and so from July through August we will be running Digital Summer School. Much like our Member of the Week format, each week we will highlight a different online digital project. We’ve tried to create a diverse list (particularly in terms of subject matter, geography, and demography), but more generally the goal is to increase the visibility of each project while hopefully sparking discussion regarding the place of digital scholarship and the role of digital scholars both within the field of urban history and more broadly among the general public.
With this in mind and on the eve of the World Cup, The Metropole wanted to provide a launch the series with Tropics of Meta (ToM) which itself just launched “The Other Football,” a new initiative coinciding with the famed international soccer tournament. Undoubtedly, ToM has been covering much more than football over the past eight years; it has served as a digital clearing house for a variety of academic pursuits. Senior Editors Alex Sayf Cummings and Romeo Guzman give us the inside details on one of the internet’s longest running academic/culture blogs.
Why did you establish this digital project and who is your audience?
Tropics of Meta (or “ToM”) was founded in early 2010 by Alex Cummings and Ryan Reft. Its goal was to bring together early-career scholars, both in-grad-school and just-out-of-grad-school, to create some kind of online forum for discussing their own work and historical scholarship in general. The aim was to provide a space for the feeling of camaraderie and intellectual community that many of us found lacking as we moved into the dissertation-writing, postdoc, and junior faculty phases of our careers. At first, we did not know exactly what form it would take, but we settled on a blog platform.
Our original audience was really ourselves and our small network of historian friends. We did not think much about traffic, site stats, or social media outreach in the beginning. However, over time our roster of contributors expanded, and with it the reach of the site; we soon began to run into strangers at conferences who said they liked the site and read it regularly. Since our focus is very general — “historiography for the masses” is our motto, and the site ranges from urban studies to legal history, from sports to foreign policy — we tend to grab a readership across disciplinary bounds. Our main audience remains within academia, but we also attract a good deal of traffic from general-interest readers who find articles by searching terms such as “civil war total war” or “female gremlin” or “what was the orginal purpose for sanctuary cities” online.
What do you hope people take away from it?
We really want ToM to show that scholars can use an online platform to present original research and synthesize scholarship in a way that is engaging for any reasonably intelligent and curious reader. We also try to cultivate a voice that can be intellectually serious but also wry, funny, and freewheeling, while still focusing on publishing substantial, longform writing.
ToM has hosted a variety of different digital and public history projects over the years — the South El Monte Art Posse’s (SEMAP) East of East and the Valley Public History Initiative’s Straight Outta Fresno and The Other Football: Tracing the Game’s Roots and Routes in the San Joaquin Valley (Fresno State). As the co-director of SEMAP and founder and director of VPHI, Romeo Guzmán has served as director or co-director on all these projects, as well as an editor at Tropics, with Alex Cummings, Carribean Fragoza, and Ryan Reft contributing as editors on various initiatives. Sean Slusser, an adjust at Fresno State and PhD Candidate at UCR is the co-director of Straight Outta Fresno. In all these projects, Tropics of Meta has served as a space to promote the original work of students, faculty, and independent scholars; to invite community members to contribute to the archive; to share what we are collecting; and to begin to use digital archives to actually publish scholarship.
How did the project come to fruition? What obstacles did you have to overcome?
Tropics of Meta has really come to fruition through the unstinting effort of our editors and the generosity of dozens of contributors who freely shared their creative work over the years. It’s an extraordinary thing considering the fact that early-career scholars — nervously sweating the job market or awaiting decisions about promotion & tenure — have no definite assurance that this work will “count” for them in professional terms. We do believe that writing for ToM has redounded to the benefit of many of our contributors, though, as digital work is increasingly valued by the academy and the public at large. (Numerous contributors have had their pieces re-published widely by major news outlets worldwide, while others have found career opportunities in part because of their work for the site.)
One of our biggest challenges has been developing a collaborative structure and workflow that makes sure pieces get solicited, posts reviewed and edited, feedback given, books reviewed, pieces pushed out on social media, and so on. We’re all pretty allergic to having a hierarchical structure and did not want to recreate a little mini corporation, but having some kind of effective organizational communication is really a necessity. We’ve tried different ways of collaborating over the years (Gchat and Google Docs, Slack, and so on), and we’re still feeling our way through this even now. What has worked very well, though, is our current structure: senior editors and associate editors, who solicit new contributions, spearhead new projects, and edit and give feedback on posts; a larger team of senior writers who contribute frequently; and a digital content coordinator who focuses on our social media outreach.
Where do you hope it goes in the future?
With all these projects Tropics of Meta serves as a really important place-holder. Instead of waiting for the entire project to be done or for a digital collection to be created, we are able to improvise and build and share as we go. To use language from SEMAP’s East of East, in many ways our digital presence allows us to center the community and public and to remain in touch. The process itself is really important with or without a goal, but we are also always thinking about ways to translate the work into bigger projects of lasting significance, such as an actual digital archive or a book manuscript. For example, East of East: The Making of Greater Mexico, 1700-2017 (edited by Alex Cummings, Carribean Fragoza, Romeo Guzmán, and Ryan Reft) is currently under review at Rutgers University Press.
So far, what moment or event related to your digital project comes to mind when I say “greatest achievement” or “unique insight”?
That is a great question. We think Tropics of Meta and SEMAP are similar in that they are ultimately grassroots projects in the sense that they happen because we dedicate time and energy to them. For the most part, they aren’t housed in an institution. So perhaps one of the greatest achievements is getting so many folks to believe in our idea and to lend their time, energy, and expertise. Perhaps also the credibility that we’ve gained and doors that have opened up as a result of these projects. Guzmán, for example, got a job as a public historian based on his work with SEMAP. And of course, it’s pretty awesome that we’ve convinced so many people that a small working-class community east of East Los Angeles is vital to understanding the history of Southern California and California in general.
In general, we have just come to understand that the so-called borders within the field of history — between public history and… non-public (?) history, digital and non-digital, academia and the public, institutions and local communities — are far more porous than people often think. Sometimes they hardly matter at all. It is quite possible to engage faculty, students, activists, artists, and community groups, young and old, scholar and non-scholar, in really dynamic conversations.
What have you learned about Fresno or what surprising aspects of Fresno have been revealed to you through your projects?
We just started The Other Football this spring, but we’ve already learned so much about soccer in Fresno and more broadly about soccer in the U.S. It’s a cliche to say that immigrants brought soccer to the U.S., but it’s absolutely true. The history of immigration to the United States can’t be separated from the history of soccer in the valley. Perhaps the most clear example of this comes from the work of Guzmán’s undergraduate student Tyler Caffee. His work has shown that it was an Iraqi immigrant who brought soccer to Visalia and started its first high school soccer team.
The other insight relates to a lot of conversations about soccer in the United States. The
USMNT’s failure to make it to the World Cup has raised a lot of questions about U.S. soccer and its pay-to-play system. Often times folks will use “formal” and “informal” to describe soccer worlds in the U.S., pay-to-play vs “Sunday Leagues” (or adult leagues). From Fresno, we’ve learned about the vital role that folks who move between these two worlds can play. For example, in 2018 Fresno welcomed its first professional soccer team: Fresno FC. This USL team was made possible because of the groundwork that the PDL team Fresno Fuego had created. Fuego was successful because it brought together these different soccer communities. There are a ton of really important individuals who made Fuego possible, but I’ll just mention one to illustrate this point. Jaime Ramirez, Fuego’s first coach, attended Pacific University and eventually became the men’s head coach. As a head coach at one of two four-year universities, he has created a club team (pay-to-play) for kids in a working-class neighborhood, coached adult teams in the San Joaquin Valley, and recruited first generation college students. Perhaps it is not surprising that one of his former players — Tony Alvarez — spearheaded the founding of Fresno Fuego. In short, the movement of individuals between these two worlds is vital to the healthy growth of soccer in the United States. I think we’d do well to find ways to replicate and encourage this type of movement.
This is a picture of an authentic Sacramento Kings jersey that I bought in middle school. I walked to the NBA Store on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue during a free period, pulled Chris Webber’s jersey off the rack, and handed over a silly amount of cash for the right to have it hang in my closet for the next 18 years. But I treasured this jersey because the Kings circa 2001 were an absolute sensation, a memorable blend of entertainment and effectiveness in an era of deliberate, sometimes stagnant basketball. Chris Webber was their fulcrum. The New York Knicks were my team, no doubt, but there was only so much Shandon Anderson and Othella Harrington a guy could take before needing to watch some quality ball. The Kings scratched that itch. So how did they become, as Sports Illustrated put it in 2001, “The Greatest Show on Court”?
The Kings’ rise and fall began in the late 1990s. After 15 consecutive losing seasons, the Kings made significant changes. They hired coach Rick Adelman before the shortened 1998-1999 season. They overhauled their roster of journeymen, past-their-prime stars, and talented but one-dimensional players. The Kings signed Vlade Divac, the slick-passing, veteran Serbian center who currently serves as the general manager of the team. Fellow Serbian Peja Stojakovic, whom the Kings drafted in 1996, finally arrived from the Greek professional league and signed with the team, giving them a promising young scorer to develop. They drafted the talented-but-volatile Jason Williams with the seventh pick in the 1998 draft, hoping he could develop into their point guard of the future. Their most significant move, however, was trading franchise cornerstone Mitch Richmond for Webber, who was entering his prime years as one of the league’s best all-around forwards. In Divac, Stojakovic, Williams, and Webber, the Kings had assembled a core that would open their competitive window.
Their moves paid immediate dividends. They finished 27-23 in 1998-1999 and lost to the Utah Jazz in the first round of the playoffs. With Williams at the helm and an unselfish core of nifty passers, these Kings played a slightly unhinged, uptempo brand of basketball that was low on efficiency but high on entertainment and good vibes. They played at by far the fastest pace in the league, with a huge gap between them and the next-fastest team, the Los Angeles Lakers. They led the league in scoring but also allowed the most points per game in the league, both a function of their pace. Interestingly, they would have been only the 23rd fastest team in the league today, an indicator of just how briskly the modern game moves. The 1998-1999 Kings signified a shift in the team’s culture and identity; they were going to play fast, team-oriented basketball, and lean on the passing skills of Williams, Webber, and Divac to do it.
The Kings’ growth continued. The 1999-2000 team was superficially similar to the previous year’s team–they played fast, scored a lot of points, and allowed a lot of points–but underneath the surface, real improvement was happening. Their defense improved to 10th in the league, as measured by Defensive Rating, an advanced metric that adjusts for pace. They made the playoffs with a 44-38 record, but lost to the dominant Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers in the first round.
After the 1999-2000 season, the Kings’ front office made significant upgrades to the roster’s depth. They traded for Doug Christie, a ferocious perimeter defender and one half of a very committed marriage. Bobby Jackson was brought in as a free agent, giving them a scoring guard off the bench to keep up the frenzied pace when Williams needed a breather. They also added another international player to the roster, drafting Hedo Turkoglu out of Turkey with their first round pick. Turkoglu’s acquisition in particular portended what the league was to become: a place where sweet-shooting, ball-handling, and playmaking big men would eventually revolutionize NBA offenses. By drafting Turkoglu, the Kings added yet another foreign-born player to a roster that was heavily international for its time. The league would continue to head in this direction over the next decade, with the Kings securing a place as an early adopter of looking abroad for talent. These varied additions helped the 2000-2001 Kings to a 55-27 record. The Kings were now fast, more efficient than ever, and boasted a strong defense to boot. This time they advanced to the second round of the playoffs, where they lost again to the Lakers.
Not content with their rise to Western Conference semifinalists, the Kings made the franchise-altering decision to trade Jason Williams – their starting point guard – in the 2001 offseason. At this point, Williams was one of the most recognizable and marketable players in the NBA. Certainly, race had something to do with it. Known as “White Chocolate,” the white, West Virginian Williams brought flash and flamboyance–a style typically associated with black streetballers–to a league that had seen elements of this style before, but rarely from a white player, and never from one with a shaved head and prominent tattoos. He regularly attempted behind-the-back or no-look passes–including the greatest pass I’ve ever seen–or dazzling crossovers, or pull-up threes on fast breaks. Williams’ style of play would simply not be permitted in today’s game, which is so focused on shooting efficiency and ball security. With a career 39.8 field goal percentage and a mediocre assist-to-turnover ratio, Williams was the antithesis of the modern point guard. But at the time, he was considered a star.
The Kings evidently felt differently about Williams’ actual effectiveness. His replacement was acquired in the trade itself: Mike Bibby, a steady, young veteran point guard who was a much more effective shooter than Williams. Bibby could pass and play with pace as well, but his arrival signified the final step in the Kings’ maturation, the transition from a stylish team with some substance to a true threat to the Western Conference crown. The trade was a coup for the Kings. They finished the 2001-2002 season with a 61-21 record, the best in the conference. They finished with the second best offense in the league while also playing at its fastest pace. Their defense was sixth best in the league, a fact obscured by the high number of points they allowed in their fast-paced games. The Kings were now legitimate championship contenders. Entering the 2002 playoffs, it seemed fated that the Kings and Lakers would meet in the Western Conference Finals. It seemed like it was the Kings’ year, that they may have developed into the best team in the league. Indeed, the Kings and Lakers did rendezvous in memorable fashion.
The narrative entering the 2002 Western Conference Finals was classic: the old guard against the young upstarts. The Lakers were steered by legendary coach and incompetent executive Phil Jackson, who disparaged Sacramento and Kings fans with elitist provocations during the series. Calling the city a “cow town” and the fans “semi-civilized,” Jackson sought to maintain hegemony on the backs of his future Hall of Famers Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. The Kings sought to disrupt the established hierarchy by proving that their team-oriented, democratic, unselfish style of play could both entertain and win. The organization even embraced Jackson’s insults and stereotyping, encouraging fans to bring cowbells to home games throughout the series. The series was evenly matched, but the new order seemed to prevail. The Kings jumped out to a 3-2 series lead. They headed to Los Angeles for Game Six, needing one win to make the NBA Finals.
Game Six of the 2002 Western Conference Finals is widely considered to be the most controversial game in NBA history. The game’s referees–Dick Bavetta, Ted Bernhardt, and Bob Delaney–made a slew of calls (and non-calls) throughout the game, particularly in the fourth quarter, that went against the Kings. Some of these decisions were egregious, while others were simply very fishy. Big men Scot Pollard and Divac fouled out on a number of questionable calls while trying to defend Shaq, while some of Shaq’s infractions went uncalled. Webber was called for a phantom foul while legally blocking a Bryant shot on a drive. Bibby got elbowed in the face by Bryant with 11.8 seconds left and the Kings down by one, but there was no call for an offensive foul on Bryant. The Lakers shot 27 free throws in the fourth quarter alone. Announcers Bill Walton and Steve Jones repeatedly criticized the officiating for both its accuracy and consistency throughout the game. The Lakers won the game and forced a Game Seven in Sacramento, which the Kings ultimately lost. The Lakers advanced to the finals and defeated the New Jersey Nets to win the title.
The uproar after Game Six was significant, sustained, and powerful. Many viewers believed that the NBA instructed the referees to make sure the big-market, ultra-popular Lakers advanced to the finals instead of the underdog, small-market Kings. High-profile sportswriters slammed the referees’ performance, with some calling it the worst-officiated game they’ve ever seen. Ralph Nader wrote to David Stern, the NBA commissioner at the time, asking for a formal review of the referees’ decisions during Game Six. And in 2008, ex-referee Tim Donaghy–who resigned from the NBA in the midst of a gambling scandal–alleged that Game Six was fixed by two referees to reflect the league’s interest in the Lakers advancing. The NBA has consistently rejected all of these wonderings and accusations out of hand.
In the following years, the Kings remained a potent side but failed to match the success of their 2001-2002 season. They earned the second best record in the West in 2002-2003, but lost to the Dallas Mavericks in the conference semifinals after Webber tore his ACL in Game Two. They slipped to fourth in the West in 2003-2004 after some significant roster changes; Pollard, Jackson, and Turkoglu left and Webber missed most of the season rehabbing his knee. He returned in time for the playoffs but was clearly diminished, and the Kings lost to the top-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves in seven games. Webber was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers halfway through the 2004-2005 season, bringing “The Greatest Show on Court” to a close.
While the early 2000s Kings did not totally revolutionize professional basketball, they did represent a transition period in several ways. The dominant style of play at the time was methodical and heavy on feeding the ball to a team’s best one-on-one scorer. The Kings adopted a more free-flowing, democratic offense in which the ball rarely stuck to one player. Their constant movement on offense would fit in neatly in the modern game. Rosters in the early 2000s largely comprised American players, either experienced former college players or straight-from-high-school phenoms. The Kings built and augmented their core with a heavy international presence. Coaches preferred a deliberate pace on offense and a bullying physicality on defense. The Kings pushed the pace in a way that was indicative of where the league would eventually go, but they did not rely on threes or free throws, which are the shots contemporary NBA offenses actively hunt for. Rather, most of their shots were twos, and many of them midrange jumpshots: the very shots that math now tells us are the worst value proposition in basketball. And it turns out that, contrary to the narrative, the Kings’ stout defense was a major factor in the team’s success. Their offense got the accolades–and really, it was something to behold at the time–but the defense made them championship contenders.
I suspect the Kings era of my life is over as well. Their games start too late for this lifelong East Coaster, and my bedtime is not trending in a direction that makes viewership likely. But I will always remember their dazzling play, their reckless abandon, and all the hours I spent trying to recreate those qualities in NBA2K. And I will always have that Chris Webber jersey hanging in my closet.
Kevin Seal is an elementary school teacher in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is a former sports blogger and, despite the sustained efforts of Pittsburghers, a devoted fan of his beloved New York teams: the Knicks, Yankees, and Giants.
Barbarian Days shattered my perception of Hawai’i. Finnegan’s description of his two years living in Honolulu, attending a public junior high school and surfing with locals, provides a glimpse into the quotidian lives of Honolulu residents in the late 1960s. Stories about surfing certain waves serve as a starting point to discuss the history and geography of the Hawaiian islands; other stories, of the friendships Finnegan forged through surfing, demonstrate the complex racial and ethnic hierarchies that Honolulu’s diverse residents navigated daily, the class divisions that organized social life, and youth culture.
I picked up Finnegan’s memoir having heard positive reviews and because, after finishing my dissertation, I needed to be transported to another time and place. I had no particular interest in surfing, be it sport, recreation, or aesthetic. Within the first twenty pages of Barbarian Days, I discovered that in fact I was very interested in surfing. Moreover, I had a newfound itch to visit Honolulu.
Unlike more traditional memoirs, Barbarian Days skips around through Finnegan’s life. Rather than beginning with his childhood in Southern California, Finnegan begins the memoir with the formative surfing he did in Honolulu between 1966 and 1967. The memoir then flashes back to his earlier years before returning to Hawai’i (albeit Lahaina, on Maui) and then follows his surfing adventures in the South Pacific, Australia, Asia, Africa, San Francisco, and Madeira.
Although I found the entire book immensely enjoyable, I think the first chapter on Honolulu is my favorite and the one that stands out most clearly in my memory. In it, we follow the young Bill as he evolves from a naïve SoCal teen with a single-minded focus on surfing to a savvy, cosmopolitan young man awakened to the reality of racism and classism. An anecdote about being picked on as the new haole (white) kid in school begins the book, signaling the end of Finnegan’s innocent ignorance. “[M]y parents sent me to the nearest junior high, up in working-class Kaimuki, on the back side of Diamond Head crater,” Finnegan writes, “where they assumed I was getting on with the business of the eighth grade, but where in fact I was occupied almost entirely by the rigors of bullies, loneliness, fights, and finding my way, after a lifetime of unconscious whiteness in the segregated suburbs of California, in a racialized world.”
Through the fistfights and brawls that he found himself in during his first weeks at Kaimuki Intermediate School, Finnegan (and the reader) become increasingly aware of the racial hierarchies operating within Honolulu. As one of the few haole kids in the public junior high—most white parents sent their children to private schools—Finnegan found himself a target for bullying by “the ‘mokes’—which seemed to mean anyone dark and tough.” Seeking protection, he joined “the In Crowd,” a haole gang from whom he “began to learn, first, the broad outlines, and then the minutiae, of the local racial setup.” This alliance insulated Finnegan from further torture, but it was not long before surfing expanded his social circle to include Hawaiian friends.
Near the house his parents rented was a surf spot that the locals called Cliffs, where Finnegan became a regular. There he met a Hawaiian teen named Roddy Kaulukukui, who was his same age and at his same skill level at surfing. Both looked up to Roddy’s older brother, Glenn, a “superb surfer, with a style that was already flowing and beautiful.” It was from the Kaulukukui brothers and their friends that Finnegan learned the ins-and-outs of surfing Diamond Head, and it was with them that he learned local surfing culture. Unlike in Southern California, where surfing was a sport of youthful rebellion, in Hawaii surfing was and remains a family affair; a sport taught by fathers to sons. Roddy and Glenn’s father was accomplished enough to have surfed some of the most advanced waves on Oahu’s North Shore. “I had always assumed that only famous surfers rode Waimea,” Finnegan recalls, but during his year living in Honolulu he “saw that local fathers rode it too, and in time, perhaps, their sons would as well.” “These people never appeared in mainland [surfing] magazines,” and yet in time he realized “there were many families like the Kaulukukuis in Hawaii—multigenerational families, ohanas rich in talent and tradition, known only to one another.”
Through the Kaulukukuis Finnegan also gained insight into Hawaiian life on the mainland, particularly how Hawaiians navigated the intersections of race and class. In an attempt to join the surfing club the Kaulukukui brothers belonged to, Finnegan found himself knocking on doors in a “posh looking subdivision high in the hills above Honolulu” trying to raise money by selling “a heavy sack of Portuguese sausage” to the affluent white residents. The organizer of the Southern Unit surfing club, Mr. Ching, gave the group “basic instruction in door-to-door salesmanship.” Explaining how the boys were to pitch the sale, Mr. Ching exaggeratedly code-switched from pidgin English: “Mr. Ching said ‘the Southern Unit,’ and the kids laughed, because he pronounced it haole-style, standard English, though it was usually said ‘da Soddun Unit.’” When, a few weeks later, Roddy transferred into one of Finnegan’s classes at school, Finnegan realized his friend could similarly play both the role of Hawaiian surfer and “haole-style” student: “Like Mr. Ching in his fund-raising spiel, Roddy abandoned briefly, his normal pidgin and spoke standard English.”
Through his parents, Finnegan gained an adult perspective on Honolulu society, particularly its class divisions. His father, a television producer, had moved the family to Oahu to make a TV show. This work regularly brought him into (contentious) contact with the state’s labor unions, and Finnegan observed that although workers—and particularly non-white workers—had benefitted from organized labor, “By the mid-‘60s… Hawaii’s labor movement, like much of its mainland counterpart, had grown complacent, top-heavy, and corrupt, and my father, although he came to personally like some of the union bosses he fought daily, never seemed much edified by the struggle.” His mother, meanwhile, found “the provincialism of Honolulu … suffocating.” Although she hid her distaste from the family and “threw herself into making the most of life in an insular, reactionary town,” in retrospect Finnegan reflects that when she traveled to “the outer islands she found, I think, a Hawaii more to her liking—not the Babbitty boosters and country-club racists of Honolulu.”
Although I can only assume that today Honolulu differs markedly from the city that Finnegan explored with his friends 50 years ago, Barbarian Days nonetheless invites readers to see Hawai’i, and Honolulu more specifically, as a place populated by residents. Tourists hardly appear, overshadowed by descriptions of riding city buses, babysitting siblings, and crushing on girls—indeed, without the social life that surfing provides Finnegan, little about his junior high experience would be remarkably Hawaiian. Yet, it’s this vision of Honolulu and Hawai’i that I appreciated and that opened my mind to a possible visit. My appreciation of surfing, however, will probably remain limited to YouTube videos.
Avigail Oren is co-editor of TheMetropole. She recently completed her Ph.D. in History at Carnegie Mellon University. More of her writing can be found here.
 William Finnegan, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, (New York: Penguin Books, 2015), 3. Big wave surfer Laird Hamilton also talks about being bullied as a haole in the documentary Riding Giants.
There is something undeniably charming about the Honolulu Airport’s late 1950s/early 1960s aesthetic. I’m not sure about smelling “tuberose and plumeria” upon arrival as one writer promised, but that might be because I don’t actually know what either of those scents smell like. I do know that the airport’s baggage claim area has distressingly low ceilings for anyone taller than six foot two.
I’ll be baldly honest; I had never been to Hawaii and I was wary. Sure, I enjoyed the three part Brady Bunch episode in the 1970s, Hawaii Five-O,Magnum P.I. and movies like North Shore and Blue Crush, but all as ironic entertainment. Actually spending nearly two weeks on the islands that nearly killed the Bradys and launched Tom Selleck’s career seemed daunting in my aging hipsterdom. Well as usual, I was wrong.
For this travelogue I’ve focused only on my three days and two nights in Honolulu, the “crossroads of the pacific” as Edward Beechert’s book’s subtitle announces. We stayed in Waikiki, at a “hip” hotel. How hip you ask? Like 1950s teddy boy hip. For example, on our last day, the hotel’s pool area hosted the Miss Waikiki Beauty Pageant. In regard to the latter, let me tell you haven’t lived until you’ve instructed those working the event on the proper mechanics of the black and tan, and then watched them shotgun their frothy drinks in an orgy of bad decision making. Gross, but I digress.
During the mid 1800s, Honolulu really came into its own as the whaling industry declined and the sugar industry ascended. If one believes historian Gavan Daws, the city’s expansion occurred rather haphazardly. “Civil carelessness gave the ground plan of the town its shape, and the skyline, seen against the inland mountain ranges was ragged,” he wrote fifty years ago in the Journal of Pacific History. “By the 60s the era of thatch and adobe was coming to an end. More and more Honolulu was emerging as a town of wood and stone.” Design was less than innovative, argued Daws, and too many of the architects and builders in the city were “average men, with average imaginations, and frontiermen’s tastes.” Admittedly, one can take some of Daws’s observations with a grain of salt. He often gives too much of a pass to the American missionaries who settled in Honolulu and the other islands in the 1820s and seems to echo some of their fairly racist opinions regarding Native Hawaiians.
Regardless of Daws’ ideological biases, the city boomed. The consumer demand generated by the California Gold Rush denuded the city of produce and goods, which led to inflation that exceeded the purchasing power of locals. “Well, I will tell you something of how we live – or, rather, how we don’t. We have not bought a bunch of bananas in many months,” missionary Samuel Castle wrote to a friend at the time, “much of the time we have neither Irish nor sweet potatoes … Almost every species of fruit is beyond our means.” As whaling and sugar intersected in their cycle of decline and ascension, America’s economy beckoned. Honolulu stood unrivaled among Pacific ports. The commander of the U.S. Pacific fleet wrote that in fact Honolulu was “more important than ever.” California’s statehood simply cemented the relationship. Americans began decamping for the Golden State, a “wave of immigration” that promised to reach Honolulu—making the islands “the West Indies of the Pacific Coast,” as one editor wrote. In the early part of the twentieth century, California architects like C.W. Dickey and Julia Morgan contributed to local design with a number of buildings that can’t help but remind observers of Progressive-era Southern California. Even today, driving around Honolulu, it evokes a certain SoCal atmosphere but with a Polynesian tinge. Considering much of its development occurred in the post-World War II period, military spending shaped large parts of Oahu, for better and worse. One wonders how much its housing and economic development resembled or paralleled California’s.
California serves as only one influence on the city. Sugar production brought Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, and Filipino workers to labor on the islands. Between the native population, the newly arriving haoles, and the sugar cane workers, Hawaii’s demographics transformed into a multicultural stew. Honolulu’s Chinatown, burned entirely to the ground in 1900, stands as just one testament to the globalizing nature of nineteenth century commodities, capital and labor. The neighborhood’s architecture, much of it built after the fire, has a distinct early- twentieth-century feel; more recently constructed buildings – to borrow from the ubiquitous HGTV series House Hunters – have a mid-century modern aesthetic. Dive bars, up and coming restaurants like the Pig and the Lady, and sprouting boutique stores mark Chinatown as perhaps the local gentrifying neighborhood. Of course, our taxi driver cautioned us one evening against venturing out into its streets, noting that there were “a lot of homeless there” and it wasn’t the kind of place you wanted to stay “after dark.” Needless to say, when the sun went down we wallowed in its narrow alleyways and imbibed on mai-tais at the dingiest of watering holes, taxi drivers be damned!
Two typical Chinatown watering holes
Obviously, the military occupies a notable place in the local economy, politics, and layout of Oahu. Manifest Destiny, to paraphrase Dave Chappelle, is a helluva a drug and the United States’s addiction to expansion led it to violate laws and human rights. American interlopers sought control of Pearl Harbor and through negotiations with the kingdom eventually leveraged it over the sugar trade in 1877. Imperialists like Alfred Thayer Mahan felt no guilt in deploying the strong-armed tactics required to secure the port. “In our infancy we bordered on the Atlantic only; our youth carried our boundary to the Gulf of Mexico; to-day maturity sees us upon the Pacific,” wrote Mahan in his famous The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783. “Have we no right or no call to progress farther in any direction?” One might answer the Captain’s question today with a studied Lebowskian, “Well, that’s just your opinion man”, but again, I digress.
Though it took many years for the U.S. military to dredge the harbor and clear it of coral, Hawaii, and more specifically Pearl Harbor’s, strategic military importance from the late 1800s thorough the current day only increased. It’s here that a visitor begins to think about the morality of Hawaii or, more precisely, the morality of America’s presence in the archipelago. Pearl Harbor stands as a sobering memorial to the Second World War and those who died in the December 7, 1941 attack on the military installation, yet quietly, almost like a whisper, one wonders about the kind of privations and death American imperialism in the Pacific caused in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
During the early twentieth century, Waikiki and Diamond Head emerged as popular tourist destinations for European and American visitors; tourism reshaped the city’s economy and depictions of its native populations. Postcards and stereoscopes of the early 1900s depicted the islands through sexualized images as a means of marketing Honolulu and other Hawaiian destinations to the broader white American public. Native women were Orientalized, presented as sensuous, accessible and sexual while native men were emasculated, portrayed as “insignificant, incapable, and disappearing,” as historians such as Jane Desmond, Ty Kawika Tengan, and Isaiah Helekunihi Walker argue.
Keep in mind, that for all the fun in the sun one discovers in the city, historians have found deeper meaning in recreational activities accessible on Honolulu’s beaches. Sure, today Waikiki is kitted out in corporate chain stores and restaurants, “a concentrated zone of souvenir dealers and luggage dragging hordes that feels like a cultural protectorate of the airport” noted one writer in a recent take on the famous tourist area. However, decades before the unrelenting development of the late twentieth century, during the 1920s the Waikiki Beachboys—native surfers who worked in tourism as guides, instructors, and entertainers, writes Walker—challenged racist norms and gendered hierarchies.
The battle between an organization of native surfers known as the Hui Nalu, from which the Waikiki boys later sprung, and their counterparts, the exclusively white Outrigger Canoe Club, worked at several levels. The two groups duked it out over who had greater athletic prowess on the beach, a means by which the Hui Nalu rejected the ethos of colonization. Through these contests, native Hawaiians refuted stereotypes regarding sexuality and masculinity while also benefitting financially through a thriving concessions business. “In ka po’ina nalu [the surf zone] they defied tourist portrayals of Hawaiian men as passive, nearly invisible Natives,” notes surfing historian Isaiah Helekmunihi Walker. “Rather than being exploited, victims of tourism, the Beachboys defied rather than bolstered common stigmas.” Native Hawaiians in Waikiki made money, established businesses, and, perhaps most notoriously considering American racial and sexual attitudes of the day, publicly romanced white women. “Through such interactions, Waikiki Beachboys violated social rules of an American society governed by anti-miscegenation laws and threatened haole hegemony by conquering endangered and privileged property,” writes Walker. “In many ways sexual encounters with white women in the surf became a mark of identity for these men …” Undoubtedly it was an imperfect exercise of agency, one that hinged on sexist notions of gender, but it reveals the Beachboys agency nonetheless. When wandering around Waikiki, it helps to remember that though it might be a tourist trap today, real meaning lies beneath the placid surface.
Though Hawaiian culture was subsumed by mainland America during and after World War II, in the 1970s a movement that became known as the Hawaiian Renaissance emerged and led to new forms of activism. Hawaiian historian George Kanahele explained its importance to audiences in the late 1970s, writing that “it has created a new kind of Hawaiian consciousness; it has inspired greater pride in being Hawaiian; it has led to bold and imaginative ways of reasserting our identity …” Native protests over the military bombing of Kaho’olawe eventually resulted in the curtailing and later ending of the island’s bombardment. The voyage of the Hōkūle’a which demonstrated that ancient Polynesian sailors had intended to reach the islands and not “accidently” stumbled upon them, reinvigorated Hawaiian pride in their historical roots. Polynesians it turns out, were top notch seaman capable of traversing the treacherous ocean and discovering the most isolated archipelago in the world. The rise of the Save Our Shores (SOS) organization which promoted environmentalism and native pride in the 1960s and 1970s, serves as the final example from these three snapshots of activism from the decade. “The Blacks, Chicanos, American Indians, and others have reasserted their rights and their roots,” Kanahele noted in 1977. “No doubt the Hawaiian cultural and political activism is part of that legacy.”
Today, you can see this pride on display during the Kamehameha Day Parade, held this year on June 10, when Hawaiians gather on Honolulu streets to celebrate the birthday of King Kemehameha, the great unifier of the islands. The ‘Iolani Palace, built by King David Kalakaua, stands as further evidence of this heritage—after decades of restoration, it embodies this cultural pride and awareness. Upon its completion, the palace was completely wired for electricity, well before the White House could claim the same. Ironically the palace is located across from the state capital, which resembles mid-century California architecture. For those interested in Hawaii’s long history, the Bishop Museum in Honolulu provides great insight into its Polynesian roots and pre-European past.
To be clear, Honolulu and the island of Oahu are but one slice of Hawaii. Each island has its own personality, and its people have their own identity.If you visit, though, don’t sleep on the state capital. While it is easy to be hypnotized by mai-tais on the beach, there is much more there there. In what other American city will you find Sun Yat Sen plaza (where excellent and very affordable dim sum can be had)? Built along the canal on the edge of Chinatown, it memorializes the Chinese revolutionary’s time in the city. If you look past the mid range shopping and chain restaurants, an ocean of culture lies before you. Dive in.
 Gavan Daws, “Honolulu in the 19th Century: Notes on the Emergence of Urban Society in Hawaii”, The Journal of Pacific History, Vol. 2 (1967): 80-81.
 James L. Haley, Captive Paradise: A History of Hawaii, (New York: St. Martin’s, 2014), 168.
 Harold Whitman Bradley, “California and the Hawaiian Islands, 1846 – 1852,” Pacific Historical Review, 16.1 (February 1947): 27-28.
 Isaiah Helekunih Walker, Waves of Resistance: Surfing and History in Twentieth Century Hawaii, (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2011), 88-89.
“It’s a cosmic irony that the longest, most grueling nonstop in the United States ends in the sweetest arrival of all,” Jocelyn Fujii, Hawaiian native and New York Times writer, wrote in a recent edition of its 36 Hours travel book series. Travelers will inhale the smell of “tuberose and plumeria” in the Hawaiian air, and find countless ethnic restaurants to satiate their taste buds, numerous accomplished art galleries to dazzle the eyes, and “hula dancers at sunset” to nostalgically transport tourists to the past. Such activities represent only a germ of the promise that one discovers in the nation’s most distant state, she pointed out.
Despite the fact that Honolulu and Hawaii date back centuries, most Americans know the city for Pearl Harbor, beaches—notably those on the North Shore and in Waikiki—surfing, tiki drinks such as Mai Tais and Blue Hawaiians, and luaus. Fans of network television might claim to watch the current iteration of Hawaii-Five O meanwhile their more benighted hipster counterparts will proudly attest to only watching the original series.
Many of us will admit to watching reruns of the 1972 Brady Bunch season opener. Greg discovers a cursed tiki statue at his Dad’s construction site, which predictably results in near disaster by the third episode of the three-episode arc. I will only touch upon Mad Men’s Season 6 opener where creator Matthew Weiner utilizes Honolulu’s mythical properties to comment on the shallowness of mid-century America. Don visits the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu; part business trip and vacation. He attends a luau where a hotel executive denigrates native cuisine; serves as witness to a soldier’s beach front wedding just before the latter ships off for Vietnam; and later alienates his Royal Hawaiian Hotel clients with an ad campaign for their company that appears to equate vacationing in Honolulu with suicide. “History is erased and blocked out with electric-blue cocktails,” Molly Lambert wrote in her cogent review. Hawaii isn’t a place with its own past and culture but instead a setting through which we discover the truth about ourselves. It would seem that these pop culture depictions of the 50th state fail to bring us any closer to grasping the complexity of Hawaii and Honolulu’s cultural, economic, and political importance over the past centuries.
Yet, perhaps these examples implicitly point to underlying issues regarding our knowledge of Hawaii, and Honolulu more specifically. Could Greg’s discovery of the cursed tiki statue, for example, be some sort of metaphorical comment on the unrelenting urban and economic development that has reshaped Hawaii in an Americanized image, thereby negating its longer history? Or is it just another Saidian Orientalist refraction of reality? Did Don Draper’s dreamlike walk through his Honolulu vacation represent his and the state’s own alienation from American society? I’ll leave that for readers to determine. Ultimately, Lambert’s larger point about historical erasure seems loudly evident. Tragically many Americans only know Honolulu through the lens of package vacation deals; the city equated with the number of days one spends lazing on the beach imbibing mixed drinks with umbrellas. Obviously there is so much more.
Europeans first made contact with Hawaii via Captain James Cooke in 1778. Cooke may not have meant to open the door to disease, which wiped out nearly 90 percent of the native population, nor intended for Americans to usurp the island during the late nineteenth century, but both occurred as a result of his encounter. About three decades after Cooke’s arrival, King Kamehameha unified the islands, utilizing his knowledge of European weaponry and iron-making and deploying each in his own violent unification of Hawaii. Europeans and the U.S. would take greater interest in the archipelago due to its burgeoning sandalwood trade from which the King profited. Americans helped introduce Hawaiian sandalwood to the international market.
Kamehameha and other Hawaiian elites grasped the idea of scarcity in capitalism quickly; the sandalwood futures market in Hawaii traded briskly. Honolulu as a port gained importance. Whaling would prove lucrative for the city particularly in the mid 1800s when demand for whale oil was high, whale stocks full, and petroleum not yet a resource. International demand brought sailors and ships to the archipelago and especially its urban center. Honolulu gained official status as the capital of the kingdom in 1850 around the same time sugar took whaling’s place in the local economy; after petroleum was discovered and whale stocks had collapsed. Though Maui would become the chief sugar producer among the eight Hawaiian Islands, Honolulu, situated on the coast of Oahu, would serve as the kingdom’s business center. Soon white haoles came to dominate much of the economy. Nineteenth century historian and advisor to Kamehameha III Davida Malo recognized the danger haoles represented for Hawaii’s continued independence. “The ships of the white men have come … they know our people are few in number and living in a small country; they will eat us up, such has always been the case with large countries, the small ones have been gobbled up.”
Economics further influenced Honolulu. Undoubtedly lucrative, sugar reshaped Hawaiian society in nearly every manner. The crop had a halting start in the archipelago, but by 1866 fortunes had turned and Hawaii had achieved its first “positive balance of payments,” notes James L. Haley in Captive Paradise: A History of Hawaii. U.S. economic interference and corporate consolidation of the land eventually followed. Yet, even on the eve of Pearl Harbor, it remained a colonial territory rather than the tourist paradise it is today.
Sugar introduced immigration flows that previously had been minimal. Chinese, Portuguese, and Japanese workers flocked to the island. By 1884, the Chinese accounted for nearly one fourth of Hawaii’s population; around the same time, Honolulu’s Chinatown bulged to nearly 8,000 residents, “such a tightly packed warren of houses, shops, shacks, and lean-tos that a fire [in 1866] could not be extinguished before devastating most of it.” The sugar cane that drew Chinese labors and others to Honolulu would persist as a cash crop into the late 20th century, the ethnic diversity needed to harvest it continued as well; in 2010, over 50 percent of the city’s population was Asian (Japanese, Filipinos, and Chinese nearly half), 18 percent white, nine percent Native Hawaiian, five percent Latino, and just over one percent African American.
Honolulu’s multiculturalism has had national implications in producing two ground-breaking politicians. Patsy Mink, champion of Title IX, became the first woman of color and first Asian American woman elected to Congress in 1965; Barack Obama became the nation’s first black president in 2008. More recently, its federal courts challenged President Trump’s travel bans and forced a showdown that will occur during the Supreme Court’s 2017 October Term.
One should not overstate the economic forces that shaped Honolulu; other cultural influences worked in parallel and imposed political and financial costs. Beginning in the 1820s, missionaries brought Calvinism; other forms of Christianity followed, all of which had myriad affects on Hawaiian society. At the risk of oversimplifying, Christianity became the state religion; the children of missionaries came to dominate sugar and other industries and their parents influenced the kingdom’s politics. In an era of imperial intrigue, religion gave the U.S. a cultural and economic advantage over British and French competitors, which the Yankees fully exploited to annex the kingdom at the end of the nineteenth century.
Later when, pineapple and sugar began their long decline—today each is mostly gone from the archipelago’s economy—tourism and the military took their place. While the implications of a military presence seem obvious and would seem to highlight the imperial aspects of Honolulu’s past, as Beth Baily and David Farber noted in The First Strange Place, WWII ushered in a wave of black, white, Latino, and Asian Americans who encountered the multiracial island during the era of Jim Crow. A conservative institution, the military regularly produces situations that challenge that very conservatism; the racial logic of mainland America faced a direct assault in the multicultural tropical setting of Honolulu. Sexual and racial boundaries would be crossed, violated, reinforced, and rethought. During the Second World War, Honoluluans of “different backgrounds were brought together in a common cause. This contact—collision, even—of cultures led to struggle and contestation, and sometimes to negotiation, improved understanding, or change,” noted Bailey and Farber.
If the military presence, arguably problematic, demonstrates complexity, so too does tourism and one of Honolulu’s premier symbols of this tourism, its beaches. “The beach was historically a place where hoale and Hawaiian worlds collided,” writes historian Isaiah Helekunih Walker in Waves of Resistance. Culture was not unidirectional. On Honolulu’s Waikiki Beach, Hawaiian and haole relationships “were redefined and reconstituted … the ocean was not simply a place from which haole, on the decks of their ships, transposed their image of the islands onto Hawaiians.”
In the water that rolled onto its beaches, argues Walker, native Hawaiian surfers subverted hegemonies. “[I]n the early twentieth century Hawaiian surfers in Waikiki successfully combated elite haole annexationists, had sex with elite white women, ran lucrative beach concessions businesses, and beat up American and European soldiers, and dictated what haole could and could not do in the surf.” Figures like Olympic gold medalist and surfer guru Duke Kahanamoku carried the sport to California where its history and bloodlines were whitewashed, but ultimately exploded into international acclaim after WWII.
Honolulu played a central role throughout this history. Since the 1970s, there has been a resurgence in capturing Hawaii’s native past and pushing past staid narratives. We hope you see this reflected in the bibliography below and, if not, fill in our blind spots in the comments.
Michael M. Okihiro, A’ala: The Story of a Japanese Community in Hawaii, (Honolulu: Japanese Cultural Center, 2003) – Not really a review, but this article from the.honoluladvertiser.com provides some useful description on the book.
James Michener, Hawaii, (New York: Random House, 2002).
Paul Theroux, Hotel Honolulu, (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001) – NYT review
 Haoles, according to historian James Haley it means literally “without breath, unable to speak the language”, is general term for non-native residents of Hawaii, initially white missionaries occupied this status later it came to include plantation workers and others.
 James L. Haley, Captive Paradise: A History of Hawaii, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2014), 90.
 James L. Haley, Captive Paradise: A History of Hawaii, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2014), 48-49, 263.
 Beth Bailey and David Farber, The First Strange Place: Race and Sex in World War II Hawaii, (New York: Free Press, 1992), 18.
 Isaiah Helekunih Walker, Waves of Resistance: Surfing and History in Twentieth Century Hawaii, (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2011), 11.