story by Nate Chinen
photo: Eiko Tamaki
The scene could hardly be more local: Keiki dance hula in hibiscus-print mu‘umu‘u, and lomi salmon and Portuguese sweetbread are served with rice, all under a lush canopy of trees. As a blessing, members of the Kamehameha Schools Maui Orchestra sing “Ka Mele Ho‘omaika‘i,” the Hawaiian Doxology; later they grab some guitars and ‘ukulele for an Island-style kanikapila. Back home, it would be any other Sunday afternoon. On the Upper West Side of Manhattan, it’s something else: the annual Central Park Hawai‘i Picnic.
Beloved both by displaced Islanders and like-minded Mainlanders, the Central Park Picnic has brought a far-flung community together every first Sunday in June for more than two decades now. And along with providing a welcome opportunity to dig in to Island cuisine, it has fostered a spirit of ‘ohana not often found in this time zone, let alone in New York City. Maybe the event carries a touch of bittersweet homesickness, but its main point every year is simply celebration and communal fun.
I attended my first picnic almost a decade ago, shortly after I arrived in the city. I wasn’t new to the East Coast, having left Honolulu to attend college in Philadelphia. But New York can pose a challenge even to those who have grown accustomed to the change of seasons. I plunged in headlong, without resources or much of a plan. Thankfully, someone had tipped me off to a good contact: Kimo Gerald, himself a Hawai‘i expat and now house manager at Carnegie Hall. I visited him within my first two weeks, and he told me to mark my calendar for the picnic, with what might have been a hint of proprietary pride.
Kimo, a bespectacled, soft-spoken and calmly authoritative figure, had made his own pilgrimage to New York from Hilo. After majoring in English at New York University, he found work as a company manager on Broadway. He has held his distinguished post at Carnegie Hall for nearly twenty-five years, and not surprisingly, has welcomed more than a few fresh-faced arrivals like myself during that time. At first, the Central Park picnic was a casual affair held in the Sheep Meadow, a green expanse. “It began with five people from Hawai‘i involved in theater in New York,” Kimo recalls. “The word spread year by year. At that time you didn’t have to apply for a permit.”
At the behest of the city Parks Department, the picnic moved to another area beside the Meadow, where it was held when I first joined the festivities, sporting a tray of fresh-chilled haupia and a reverse-print aloha shirt. In recent years the site has been near Columbus Circle, where passersby scratched their heads at the incongruity of a hula halau tracing rainbows with their hands in the shadow of Trump Tower. Inevitably, some of them stopped long enough to blend in and gleefully loaded paper plates with laulau and poi.
This year for the first time, the picnic set up at Summit Rock, choice real estate in the park’s hilly western precinct. Hemmed in by trees with a few outcroppings of stone, the site is a perfect oasis, an island itself. “After all these years, we finally feel like we have found the ideal location,” Kimo says.
Despite the threat of rain, more than 200 people have passed through—a smaller turnout than in other years, but not bad. By the time the clouds break open at 4 p.m., most of the grinds have been ground, and the music and hula are pau. Kimo and others strike the tent, pack up and step out of their temporary Pacific onto the concrete shores of Fifth Avenue.