We are a nation of travelers, a nation of searchers, a nation of immigrants. We have never been stagnant. We move for a better life, we move for answers, we move for adventure, we move to escape, we move. Almost 100 years ago my ancestors boarded a ship to come to the United States. I do not know their motivations and reasons. I only vaguely understood the process they endured. I know that they moved. The day that I just spent on the water, off of Battery Park, on Liberty and Ellis Islands has brought me immeasurably closer to my family, to their journey and to myself.
We emerged from the Bowling Green subway station in Battery Park prepared for the worst. We had heard of Statue of Liberty security this, prohibitive entry that. More than understandable in southern Manhattan where the cloud of terrorist attack still looms despite the proud defiance of its people. Tourists all around us were moving very quickly to Castle Clinton National Monument (b/k/a the place to buy tickets for the Circle Line Ferry that takes you to Lady Liberty). We were walking slowly and happened to stop and gaze at a misshapen, charred, and holed-out statue. The plaque revealed that the statue was named "The Sphere" and it had been located at the base of the World Trade Center. It barely survived the fall of the Towers and stands in Battery Park as a reminder. It is a very powerful statue.
We entered Castle Clinton and bought tickets for the ferry. We had five minutes until the next boat. Right on time. Or not. Before we saw the Statue of Liberty in the distance, before we had a chance to see Ellis Island we saw a line of perhaps 500 people. By the time we walked to the end of the queue there was maybe 600. We were resigned to a long day and we were wrong. I cannot emphasize enough how smoothly the Security Check went. Street performers entertained, the one Ranger on duty, herding the people along, was friendly and efficient. The line’s swiftness made taking a photograph of the Harbor difficult. We did not make the first boat, but we were comfortably on the second, free of hassle, superficially free of fear, in good spirits and lucky to have a third tier starboard-side view.
The ferry was crowded but not full. We were quickly nearing Lady Liberty. The boat turned its direct heading giving the starboard side the view. There was now a sudden rush to the side rail. I was pushed to the edge of the rail. People moved in all around me. A deluge of snapshots and polyglot cacophony ensued. And we were all photographing and saying the same thing to our loved ones: ‘She’s so beautiful”.
I was enraptured by her strength, her beckoning, her grace. I felt as my ancestors may have felt when they saw her for the first time. Wonder, amazement, a dream about to begin. I am sure that every person staring at her from the rails saw something different, felt something different. She accepts and actualizes all emotions; she welcomes all to her shores. She is the idea of an ideal America. She is all that was, is, and could be magnificent about this country. She is promise and she is hope.
She is an America uncorrupted by the bigotry, the closed borders, the warfare, the slavery. She is the idea. She is what we must become. She is a reminder. She is a powerful statue.
The slow turn of the boat allowed for more than enough introspection, imagination and pictures. We were soon docking on Liberty Island. I have heard that in the past tourists were allowed inside the Statue, up to her crown, even up to the top of the torch. It is not the case today. Visits to the top as well as the base of her pedestal are also forbidden. The visitor is allowed to walk around the exterior of the island, basking in her long shadow. I do not regret being unable to visit her museum at the base. Her glory does not require a closer view; her history does not require explanation. She elicits myriad emotions from afar. An interior visit could spoil her grandeur.
The ferry to Ellis Island seemed even more crowded than the one to Liberty Island. Our driver made sure to double back, giving his passengers another view of the Statue. We were all eager to see the next Site. I am unsure as to when my trip to Ellis Island ceased to be to a museum and became instead an unforeseen pilgrimage. But it happened. It may have been when I walked into the historical research center, a database that allows everyone to research all the boat registries from 1880 through 1920. It may have been when I read the sign near the center explaining that point to be the place where immigrants and their already American families met each other. It explained that when Slavic families were reunited they embraced each other with extreme vitality.
I do know that by the time I entered the great hall of the Registry Room I was emotional and a bit tearful. I was transported.
Because of both the Great Depression and stricter immigration policies, after the 1920’s Ellis Island was no longer Ellis Island. Operations ceased in the 1950’s. The facilities went into disrepair until the 1980’s. At that point a full restoration of Island One began. The Island has been extensively photographed in all its stages, from birth, its 1900’s heyday, its decline and its ruin. Its present restored condition is mind-blowing. The building looks just as it did during the mass immigrations. The building looks like a large terra cotta and maroon castle. It is more imposing than welcoming.
The Research Center and the impeccably restored building alone would have made for a splendid trip. The excellent museum made the tour transcendent, as well as a few hours longer than expected. The exhibits are well done and informative. One is not left wanting for answers. The museum is large and the exhibits are many but one never feels overwhelmed or rushed. The tour is crowded but one never feels cramped.
An exhibit of suitcases greets the visitor at the entrance. You are at a place of motion, a new beginning. The second floor is the Registry Room with its large open space and high tiled ceiling. Two American flags extend from the third floor balcony. Everybody who came to Ellis Island waited here. They waited to confirm their steerage. They waited to convince inspectors of their health, their mental abilities, of their familial ties already in the states, and of their ability to earn a living.
An exhibit tucked into the small rooms surrounding the Registry Room takes the visitor step by step through the immigrants’ path at Ellis Island. Now I know. Another exhibit shows only large black and white headshots of many nationalities of immigrants still dressed in their European-Caribbean-Northern African clothes. The pictures all were taken the day the new Americans landed at Ellis Island. Touching.
I was especially moved by a traveling exhibit of letters and drawings from present-day middle school aged immigrants. They explain how their lives have changed and what it means to them to be an American. Their clear language, their frankness, their lack of gravitas, and their mature understanding brought me to tears. They are now Americans.
Our country’s door is no longer as open as it was when my ancestors sought refuge. But the idea of the ideal America promised by the Statue of Liberty and once put into process at Ellis Island is still alive in the hearts and minds of many. The dream was alive to my ancestors, it is alive to the middle schoolers, it is alive to those denied entry, it is alive to me. Lady Liberty promises us a voice; a voice to determine our nation’s path as well as our own. We must never forget to fulfill her promise.
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