I know it’s a cliché, but I love New York. The scale of it has always impressed me from the first time I laid eyes on it, in the winter of 2000, and I still have that awe and respect that I’ve always had. I had never seen so much gray, such vertical and imposing gray and glass, concrete and asphalt canyons. And if you see nothing but these monoliths of commerce and excess, you lose sight of what New York really is. It’s easy to lose it in the repellant bustle and conspicuous consumption of Times Square, the howling subway brakes or the unmentionable smell hitting you from the gutters and alleyways. Sure, all these things are forgettable in themselves, but that’s just scratching the surface.
What draws me to New York is history, culture and context. Within these limited square miles of Manhattan, and the equally dense boroughs that ring the city, is the end result of hundreds of years of mixing and blending untold cultures into some sort of unified but remarkably diverse whole, a tribe apart from all else. It’s written into people’s faces, the clothes they wear, the signs that adorn the buildings, the food that wafts beneath your nose. I doubt you can have such a sense of ever being everywhere at the same time, as on a street in New York. Millions of people have come through this city, on their way to rags or riches, however they may manifest themselves. If nothing else, it is fascinating. But for me, it is more than that. My trip up north was an effort to retrace my own American roots through that city, the result of some very determined and talented people that a hundred years ago decided to take their future into their own hands.
For Thursday night and all of Friday, we did the random thing- walked the Brooklyn Bridge, ate in Chinatown (to die for), checked out The Strand, had some beers. The usual. But Saturday, that was the big day. While Ken went to the New School for an info session, while Anne had an all-day training session for NY Public Schools, and while Paul slept through some European soccer games, I headed to Battery Park for an intense dose of personal history, several months in the making. Not even a hundred years ago, my ancestors dutifully filed through Ellis Island on their way to pursue the American dream, steaming their way across the Atlantic, their homelands in Sweden, Poland and Hungary to their rear. I felt it was my responsibility to learn where I came from, see what they saw, and feel in any kind of insignificant way what they may have felt.
Twelve dollars gets you on the ferry to Liberty and Ellis Island, and also through a security tent the likes of which don’t exist outside of airports or military bases. I have to wonder; when our monuments become locked down and closed to access, what does that say about us, and how we value what they mean for us? I’m watching old Japanese women in kimonos being frisked and metal-detected, and cannot help but wonder where it ends. I have no answer. Neither do the sub-contracted guards with Russian and Indian accents.
Originally, I was going to bypass Liberty Island; I can’t go inside because I’m a cheapskate, so what’s the point? As we steamed closer to the island, I saw why I should get off. It’s one thing to see the statue from afar, but that close, it’s truly majestic. I stood on her right side for a long time, the morning sunlight coming up behind her ear, and looked out over the river, out to sea. This is what my ancestors saw. What could they have thought, seeing that immense bronze beauty welcoming them? Such a clear and unambiguous welcoming sign, clear in her magnanimity and openness. If only the people she represented acted so. But I couldn’t think of that then- not of the discrimination, both de facto and de jure that they faced upon landing in America. This was an ideal, but ideals are what keep people going.
The art historian in me took over at one point, observing the graceful S-curve in the statue, that classical sculptural form as ageless as the form itself. I also noticed how she pushes off on her rear right foot, making it clear that she is not static; she is pushing hard to raise that torch high, to beam the light as far as it can go. The symbolism was not lost on me.
On that, I found myself back on the ferry, headed for Ellis Island. My anticipation was making me jittery; I couldn’t believe that I was retracing the steps of my family, 95 years later. We circled back around Liberty Island, and eased into the slipway of Ellis Island, the exact same way that 12 million immigrants passing through Ellis did while it was in operation. The south side of the island, which housed all the hospital facilities, lies in disarray. Fifty years of abandonment have only recently ended, and these buildings are undergoing extense restoration. But the north side beckons.
I felt like I was in the midst of a flashback. The murmuring crowds pressed up against the gangway, the anticipation for getting on dry land, of entering these unfamiliar new environs- the context may have changed, but the content of the moment, that was exactly the same. The skyline of the city may have been a little shorter then, a little less shiny and angular, but it still imposed from the island, beckoning.
I stepped off the gangway, and walked away from the crowds, taking in the sights. The north building is a huge, ornate, train-station-looking building stretching the entire length of the island, with huge recessed arching windows ringed by cement blocks, the keystone capped with a face. Gigantic stone eagles clutching shields stood atop each column, and a stone railing ringed the entire structure. A sort of hybrid belltower-churchtower stood at the front of the slipway.
When you enter, the whole bottom floor is wide open, with information desks here and there, but with a large display of luggage left behind by immigrants piled up in a row. Huge pictures of immigrants disembarking from their destinations, identifications in mouths as hands were fully occupied, hung from the ceiling. And to be honest, walking on these same wooden floors, I was a little taken aback by emotion. I could feel the connection to my history through this floor, these walls, the tangible objects before me and the intangibles I felt swirling about me. I felt an electricity, like some energy that had been dormant for so long had been reawakened. Looking at the pictures of nervous, homesick men and women so many decades above, I could see my family in them, knowing that this was the point of no return, if they made it off this island. It was either sink or swim. Perhaps the island served as a fitting reminder of that metaphor. I couldn’t shake the emotion, and truthfully, I didn’t want to. I was learning something about where I came from, and thus, about myself. I blinked back tears that somehow welled up, not out of sadness or happiness. Perhaps amazement of being so close to the distant past. I’ll never know.
I tromped upstairs, to the Registry Room, where immigrants queued up for possibly hours, inching along in their heavy overcoats, waiting to be taken in officially by the United States. Massive American flags hung from the arched ceilings, large rays of sunlight filling the room. I couldn’t imagine their bewilderment standing in this huge hall, dozens, possibly hundreds of languages echoing through the air, clutching their worldly possessions as American doctors gave them a six-second, on the spot medical examination. At the peak of immigration, public health doctors only had six seconds to size up an immigrant for potential health problems- physical or mental, internal or external. Chalk marks on your overcoat in simple codes clued in doctors down the line as to what may be wrong. Onward they inched, hoping that one of the dozens of volunteer translators darting about spoke Greek, Magyar, Finnish, what have you, in order to ease the transition.
Finally, at the tall wooden desk, a man in a uniform took your information. It was up to you to present your name clearly- if not, you could end up with it changed. How do I know this? Well, both of my parents’ family names were changed at this very desk. He asks you many questions- why you want to come to America? Married or single? Do you have a job? Do you have family here? If you tripped their suspicions, thinking you a criminal, a contract worker (it was actually better to not have a job lined up, if you did, you could be deported outright), likely to become a public burden, or harboring radical political attitudes, you underwent further scrutiny. In all, out of 12 million people to pass through Ellis Island, only 2% of them were returned home. I say ‘only’ because it sounds small, but for those thousands, that was definitely not small enough- something that I never forget. A slip of the tongue could send you home, penniless and heartbroken, possibly separated forever.
And if you finally make it through Ellis, you pile on another ferry, one headed straight for Battery Park, where I began my journey that morning. They say it was filled every day with people awaiting family and friends, frequently punctuated with joyous, tearful reunions, the sounds and smells of myriad cultures echoing throughout. Unscrupulous employers ranged around the park, seeking gullible migrants to cheat with low wages and unsafe conditions, hiding from volunteer immigrant activists seeking to ease the transition of the newcomers, help them find their way. As the voyage was fraught with danger, so is the new life. Such is all life.
I learned more about what it was like to live and pass through here in the exhibits, but honestly, it’s the emotional impact that is sticking with me. This focal point was the genesis of the American branch of my family, and had it not been for their enterprising selves, I would not be here. Thank God they thought enough of themselves and their family to try and better themselves and their chances in life. All I can do is live my life trying to do the same. For two generations they worked as longshoremen and seamstresses and stair-scrubbers to lift their children up. America gave them the opportunity, and I am grateful; and the best way I can honor their decisions and hard work would be to fight just as hard to make sure that this country keeps improving, just as it did with their contributions. It’s not enough to be grateful and appreciative. You have to act on that appreciation. You can’t be down with discrimination, nor cheating employers nor lying, thieving politicians, nor none of the small-minded predation that stalked my foreign ancestors as they strode ashore. You have to fight injustice and predators and cheats and liars, no matter the guise, no matter the era, because it truly is all cyclical. They bring it all down so low, again and again, and we must never let them get back up.
I think a lot of people in my generation don’t know, don’t give a shit about where they came from. They think they had it easy, and coast through life like some leisurely ride, never thinking about the sacrifice necessary or taking in the grand gift they were given. As we steamed back to Battery Park, I could imagine how that 1913 skyline looked, and the terror and hope that roiled in their guts as the park grew steadily closer, their date with destiny, and all the possibilities they could fathom. They navigated that life, and they succeeded, because I could make this trip. I’ve never been closer to where I came from, and never more proud to be who I am.
Thanks for reading.