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Reflections of Palama Settlement

Groups of young people sit and stand on and around a three-level platform diving tower.
Interisland Play Day at Palama Settlement, 1938. (Palama Settlement Archives photo.)

On June 2, 1896, Honolulu philanthropist P. C. Jones built Palama Chapel at the corner of King and Liliha streets in Palama, O‘ahu. Located west of Nu‘uanu Stream, near Downtown Honolulu, Palama was home to mostly working-class Hawaiian families. In 1900, as Honolulu health officials attempted to rid the nearby Chinatown area of bubonic plague, fire destroyed a four-block section. Displaced residents took up residence in newly built tenements in Palama, changing the physical, social, and economic make-up of the community.

After the chapel was transferred to the Hawai‘i Evangelical Association, it become part of the American settlement movement which began with New York City’s University Settlement in 1886 and Chicago’s Hull-House, founded by social reformer Jane Addams in 1889. Beginning in 1905, social worker James Arthur Rath, Sr. and his wife, Ragna Helsher Rath, turned Palama Chapel into Palama Settlement, a chartered, independent, non-sectarian organization receiving contributions from the islands’ elite.

“They called them ‘settlement houses,’ the philosophy being that the head worker, as they called them, settled in the community. Instead of going in to spend the day working and coming out, they settled in, raised their families there and in that way learned, one, what the people needed; two, gained their confidence so that they could help them fulfill their needs; and then, three, went ahead and designed programs for exactly what the people needed. So they were settlers and therefore they called them settlement houses. Which is what the origin of Palama Settlement was because my father and my mother settled there and all five of us children were born and raised in our home in the settlement.” —Robert H. Rath, Sr.

The Raths established the territory’s first public nursing department, a day-camp for children with tuberculosis, a pure milk depot, a day nursery, a night school, and low-rent housing. In 1908, an indoor swimming pool was opened, and a year later, a gymnasium and bowling alley were built above it. Later, outdoors, a playground, tennis court, and basketball court were added. In 1916, the Palama Settlement Athletic Association was formed.

After a territorywide fund-raising effort, Palama Settlement in 1925 moved to its present location with nine buildings spread over eight acres of land on Vineyard and Palama streets. Over the years, a medical clinic, an outpatient clinic, and the Strong-Carter Dental Clinic were established along with annual circuses, athletic competitions, social and community-service clubs, boardinghouses for women, and a preschool. Classes and events relating to music, arts, vocations, and athletics were also offered.

“They [i.e., Palama Settlement’s coaches] were strict. They caught us doing something wrong, they tell us. And we’d get (chuckles) our pants kicked or something. And they made us go straight. . . . Palama used to have the emblem, winged P, sports. To earn one of those, you have to be a member of the team. When you got one, you were proud of it, very proud of it.” —James Koo

“There were swimming classes, besides the free swim. There were classes in home ec[onomics], young people as well as the elderly. I was telling you about some of the immigrant Japanese women that would go into smaller groups and do cooking classes. . . . And there was music, group singing. Across [Vineyard] Street there was the preschool. Oh, there were also groups for Boy Scouts, there were judo classes. These were staffed by volunteers, and some were paid.” —Jennie Lee In

World War II and the postwar era brought about widespread changes in Hawai‘i’s social, economic, and political environment. These developments, in turn, led to changes in the way social agencies such as Palama Settlement addressed community needs. Observers noted that Palama Settlement was departing from its original settlement house philosophy by offering programs for fees and catering to a broad cross section of people regardless of where they lived.

The 1960s and 1970s were periods of re-evaluation, adjustment, and growth, mainly due to the Trecker report (which called upon the settlement's programs to be more people-centered rather than activity-centered, stressing human and community needs as opposed to uncoordinated, departmentalized activities) and the large-scale social and economic programs being implemented nationally. Civil rights and anti-poverty legislation brought large amounts of federal monies to Palama Settlement for local programs geared to at-risk youth and community development.

“I remember sitting back, thinking about how much hurt I put on my family, my mom dragging me to court, and my father having to take time off from work, and so forth. Something happened. I just said, ‘This is it. I can’t do this anymore.’ . . . And when I got to the Palama Settlement, the settlement was just unbelievable. I mean, the opportunity to learn in areas of reading, math, science. Those were excellent core areas. And then the biggest thing at Palama was the training table. I mean, if there was an incentive, other than playing sports, it was the training table. Honest. When you come from a large family the portions are always the same. Palama was different like, ‘Oh, I can’t wait to get there.’” (Laughs.) —Fituina F. Tua

Many of the programs survive today: Pakolea, a behavior modification program built around sports participation and academics; the in-community treatment program which aids court-referred youth offenders; and neighborhood development, an advocacy program for the community, particularly residents of nearby public housing projects, Mayor Wright Homes and Ka‘ahumanu Homes.

Palama Settlement—a smaller one due to the widening of Vineyard Boulevard and the construction of the H-1 Freeway—continues to exist as a nonprofit, nongovernmental agency dedicated to helping needy families and at-risk youths.


audiotape iconMoke Kealoha describes Palama pride (.au/.wav sound file, 198K).





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