For much of the twentieth century, Hilo was the second-largest city in the island chain, and it was not until the early 1960s that Kailua on Oahu surpassed the “Crescent City” (so named because the city sits on a crescent-shaped bay) in population. Fueled by a keen spirit of boosterism, many of the buildings erected between 1910 and 1932, especially those along Hilo's main street, Kamehameha Avenue, and around its original government center at Kalakaua Park, reflected the citizens' metropolitan aspirations.
Prior to the arrival of foreigners, native Hawaiian settlement at Hilo was concentrated at the mouth of the Wailoa River. When missionaries arrived in 1823 and established Haili Church (HA41), the population shifted to that area, centering on the present location of downtown Hilo. As late as 1840, the village was still without roads. After midcentury the town occasionally served as a stopover and supply point for New England whalers, and later as a shipping point for the emerging sugar industry. However, it was not until the breakwater was built between 1909 and 1922 that Hilo became a major port. Construction of the railroad to Paauilo between 1909 and 1913 connected the sugar plantations of the Hamakua coast to Hilo, which greatly accelerated the city's growth and prosperity.
Hilo's physical appearance was dramatically altered by two major tsunami, in 1946 and 1960. As a result of these devastating natural disasters, Kamehameha Avenue, previously a thoroughfare lined with buildings on both sides of its street, lost all its makaiside buildings. A new highway now separates the city from the shore. The Kaikoo district was also cleared and converted into open park space. The Hawaii County Building (HA27), erected in 1966, signaled the first step in the redevelopment of the Kaikoo area as the new civic center. The state office building and Kaikoo Mall (both on Aupuni Street) were constructed in the following year. The twelve-story Naniloa Hotel, also built in 1966, signaled the development of the Banyan Drive area as the visitor accommodation center for the city. During the 1970s and 1980s, further construction, much of it nondescript in character, refocused the hub of commercial activity away from the historic downtown area and to the malls along Kanoelehua Avenue. The strong efforts of the Hawaii Main Street program in the late 1980s and early 1990s resulted in the revitalization of the downtown core, with many restaurants and specialty shops contributing to the new synergy.
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