11 November 2011

Malls of my Youth – Pearlridge Center, Aiea, HI

Most people from my generation have their Mall (or Malls) of their Youth. Having spent the majority of my formative years in three places, I have three Malls of my Youth. The first was Pearlridge Center in Aiea, Hawai’i.

To most people, Hawai’i is seen as that far off paradise that one is only lucky enough to visit once or twice in their lifetime. To me, Hawai’i was just home. I lived there from the time I was four until I was ten in a military townhouse in Ewa Beach, across Pearl Harbor from the bustle and tourists of Honolulu. On the island, there were two major malls and several smaller ones. Everybody knows Ala Moana, that huge upscale open-air mall on the doorstep of Waikiki. It was for tourists and locals tended to avoid it. Pearlridge was where we went.

Pearlridge Center Mallmanac ca. 1993. View the full PDF version here.

To this day, I've never seen a mall quite like Pearlridge. The mall is primarily divided between two separate buildings with several plazas outlying and a watercress farm smack dab in the middle. The coolest thing about the mall was always the monorail connecting the two main buildings.

At least once a week before starting kindergarten, my mom and I would ride The Bus (literally; the public bus in Honolulu is called just that- The Bus.) She’d bring a fold up cart with us as we took the long trek from the Leeward side of the island to Aiea. As we approached our stop at the corner of Kam (Kamehameha) Highway and Kaonohi Street, she’d always put me in charge of pulling the wire to signal our desire to disembark. I was always nervous with this responsibility; I was afraid that if I were too late the bus would just keep going and going forever.

We’d start these trips at the Kamehameha Drive-In, home of a massive daily swap meet. Then after consuming my shave ice and scouring the place for toy airplanes, we’d cross the busy Kaonohi Street to Pearlridge Center.

Shots of and from the famous the monorail, officially known as the Skycab.

Pearlridge Center was a fairly unremarkable set of buildings from the outside. A lot of the exterior was obscured from view by several parking decks and rooftop parking. It was dark and always seemed crowded on the inside, with very little natural light filtering in due to the absence of skylights. Parking, it seemed, was a better use for the rooftops than a few ceiling windows. I’d wait patiently while my mom shopped at JCPenney and Liberty House for what was always the highlight of the day- riding the monorail to what was then called Phase Two.

TL- The view of the tall, residential skyscrapers of the Aiea skyline as seen from the roof of the Uptown section. TR- Aiea's skyline rises behind the Downtown section's Sears store. BL- Sears comes into view during a ride on the skycab. Just outside of its doors lies the watercress fields. BR- Blue skies above Pearl Harbor, another of O'ahu's landmarks easily seen from Perlrdge Center's roof.

The monorail station in Phase One was located on the roof. I remember the escalators leading up to the station had the word Monorail painted diagonally along the full length (or maybe it was Parking, or Level Three... Seems I don’t remember too clearly.) My mom always gave me a quarter so that I could pay the attendant myself. I’d happily give the shiny coin to the bored teenage attendant and wait anxiously for the monorail to arrive.

The view from the rooftop station was amazing. We were surrounded by a skyline of tall, striking residential towers to the north and, to the south, got an excellent vista of Pearl Harbor, Ford Island and Aloha Stadium. Those views were forgotten, however, when the Skycab would finally pull up. I was always giddy with excitement as the doors slid open and we took our seats in the driverless tram.

The famous copper koi, three stories tall, still exist as the centerpiece of Sears.

To many kids my age in Hawai’i, riding the monorail was the pinnacle of excitement. There were no real amusement parks on the island (there was Castle Park, but it was hardly Cedar Point) so this was all we knew. The monorail rode slowly downward from Phase One on the narrowest of tracks, taking a sharp turn to the right just before a couple of doors flung open allowing us entrance into Phase Two.

Pearlridge Center's layout as of this writing.

Here, we’d hit Woolworth on the bottom level before heading to Sears. I’ll never forget the impressive three story copper koi hanging next to the escalators. They were just cool as hell. Then, we’d get a bite to eat at Zippy’s or Anna Millers before taking the long bus ride back home.

Pearlridge, at least as I see it, has changed little over the years. I returned to Hawai’i as a freshman at University and was glad to see that, besides the interiors being a little brighter, the monorail was still running and the koi were still swimming upstream. I even got a part time job at the very same Woolworth where my mother spent hours (to me, at least) browsing the boring fabric department.

The last time I was in Hawaii was in 2008, after a fifteen year absence. I was glad to see that wood and earth tones, though in more of a style in tune with modern tastes, were returned to the decor. Phase One (Macy's building) had been renamed Uptown, while Phase Two (Sears building) was rechristened Downtown. The best thing, though, was that the monorail was still running and the coy were still swimming (figuratively, of course.) And, being the first Mall of my Youth, Pearlridge set the bar pretty high. Luckily, however, the second Mall of my Youth was more than able to meet the challenge.

TL- Another view of the Downtown section from the Skycab. TR- The cool, wooden tones of the interior, second level concourse of Uptown. BL- Outside the Uptown Macy's store, originally a Liberty House. BR- The full view of the watercress fields separating Downton from Uptown, with the Waianae mountains in the distance to the west.

A jaunt on the Skycab. It was like I was a kid again, and you can hear my excitement.

[All photos and videos were taken during the afore mentioned 2008 visit.]

Pearlridge Center's official website.

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