Haiku Stairs to be removed

Starway to Heaven faces demolition in late 2021 and early 2022

After nearly 80 years, the fabled Haiku Stairs, otherwise known as the Stairway to Heaven, on Oahu, are likely to be scraped off of Oahu's iconic landscape.

The controversial decision came after the Honolulu City Council voted unanimously in favor of removal on September 8th. The decision follows calls to tear down the stairs that began ramping up as early as January of last year, even before the onset of the COVID pandemic. Honolulu mayor Rick Blangiardi issued a statement on September 14th denouncing issues with the location such as trespassing, personal injuries, and invasive species, ordering the stairs’ removal. 

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Several unnamed council members reportedly voiced personal reservations about the move, despite the unanimous vote. Reactions among the general public have been mixed as well. Some have praised the decision on economic grounds and as a public safety measure, while others have complained it represents a blow against the unique character of the Hawaiian Islands and what has continually drawn millions of annual visitors to their shores.

However, many more are likely unaware of the decision, or perhaps unfamiliar with this extraordinary landmark altogether. The Haiku Stairs are truly one of a kind. Their impending removal, if carried out, will be a moment of considerable historical and cultural significance.

These 3,922 conjoined steps, popularly referred to as Oahu's 'stairway to heaven' were constructed in 1942. As one might have guessed given the year, the purpose was very much a military one. Less than a year prior, and possibly even in direct view from the stairs soon-to-be location along the sides of the Ko'olau mountains, more than 2,300 Americans were killed by Japanese fighter pilots in what was then the worst-ever attack on American soil. This momentous event on December 7th, 1941 brought the United States into WWII in what is now of course known to us all today as Pearl Harbor Day. 

The namesake harbor was, and still is, by far the closest US military base to the coast of Japan, given Hawaii's unique location in the center of the Pacific. The surprise attack launched an immense and rapid expansion of Oahu as a defense installation, turning it practically overnight into one of the world's largest. An essential part of this makeover was the construction of a cutting-edge radio communications system, which cost today's equivalent of over $10 million.

Antenna were sprawled across the Haiku Valley and connected for daring on-foot personnel by a treacherous string of stairs and planks. Some stretches are exhaustingly steep; others are dizzyingly narrow, inches from jagged cliffs encroaching on either side.

To what extent this revolutionary radio system was used during WWII, and to what extent military personnel ran up and down its vertigo-inducing pathway in wartime, are questions the US military has been characteristically shy about answering. However, we do know that in the 1970’s, the Coast Guard began allowing visitors to test their fortitude by climbing this literal stretch of history.

Visitation increased dramatically after the stairs appeared in episode 17 of the show Magnum PI in 1981. What had been around 75 visitors a day suddenly became upwards of 200. Serious problems began to arise, namely of the vandalism, littering, and serious injury kind. In 1987, the stairs and corresponding hiking trail were closed permanently.

That would be the end of the story if the law was something all visitors and locals were impressed by. Of course, most are, and by all accounts, foot traffic on the Haiku Stairs declined dramatically after they were closed. However, over the years, many have been undeterred, and their insistence on covert illegal climbing has only intensified the dangers.

In fact, the law eventually proved so ineffective at facilitating public safety that moves were made in 2003 to renovate the stairs and reopen them to the public. But even this discouraging reversal of plans ultimately fell through. The Stairs’ owners at the time, the Board of Water Supply, failed to transfer ownership to the Department of Parks and Recreation as originally planned. This set up a long and complicated bureaucratic stalemate which has continued to fester while other issues take precedent, and as more and more reckless trespassers cover the hillside with trash and their own wounded bodies.

Seemingly fed up with the whole ordeal, calls grew louder to simply give up on a regulatory solution altogether. After all, how can the stairs get vandalized or cause injuries if they don’t exist? Why it has taken so long for the local government to take action is anybody’s guess, but this year, it has been swift and decisive. According to an environmental impact study conducted by the aforementioned Board of Water Supply, the stairs could be gone as early as the middle of next year.

The reasoning behind the removal is obvious even without having to mention the exorbitant financial cost to the city of Honolulu imposed by maintaining this illegal attraction. That being said, the reservations about losing such an irreplaceable landmark are easy to understand. Visitors insist that on top of these stairs one finds the single best view in all of Hawaii - a bold claim for a state favored by Hollywood filmmakers for its plethora of breathtaking landscapes.

Whether they’ve climbed the stairs themselves or not, critics also denounce the removal on more philosophical grounds. There is truly no place like Hawaii anywhere else in the world; no other place with its history, its culture, its natural wonders. The Haiku Stairs are undeniably a piece of that history, and an unforgettable way for visitors to connect with it. Should we really erase such an opportunity for connection, wonder, and appreciation, simply because it is dangerous and expensive? 

In any case, Mayor Blangiardi and the Honolulu City Council seem to have fallen squarely on one side of the debate. A $1 million budget has been authorized to carry out the inevitably lengthy and elaborate project. Chances are good that the next time you or I visit the islands, deconstruction of the Haiku Stairs will already be underway, if not fully completed. It may well mark a win for public safety and a loss for rebellious thrill-seekers; but there is no question Hawaii will remain a wealth of opportunity for adventure, discovery, and reverence.

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