The future of New York Harbor

Flying back into New York City last Friday I had one of the best views one can have of the metropolis when the plane flew directly up the harbor and passed over the city on its way to LaGuardia. We were so low it was like getting a helicopter-view of what was below. The buildings were cool, but my favorite part were the islands in the harbor. It gets lost on many New Yorkers that they live and work on an archipelago. Manhattan Island. Long Island. Staten Island. Roosevelt Island. Ellis Island. Liberty Island. Governors Island. Randall’s Island. So on and so forth.

Flying in I could see the outline of Fort Jay on Governors Island, which was all the more dramatic for being covered in snow. I tell people during my tours of the island to think of everything that has happened in the world over the past two centuries and to think that Fort Jay and Castle Williams have been standing watch in New York Harbor all that time. From above, one also sees how exposed the islands are there in the water. National Geographic has a fascinating piece about how Ellis and Liberty Islands were effected by Superstorm Sandy and what might happen to them and the other islands in the future with global warming.

Jersey governor/New York gala

Ellis Island with Jersey City in the background
Ellis Island with Jersey City in the background

When I was a volunteer at Ellis Island National Monument one of my favorite stories to tell was about the site’s jurisdiction.

The short version is this: Ellis Island is actually situated in New Jersey waters. For years the Garden and Empire States argue over which can lay claim to the site. Being good American, they sue. Eventually the matter ends up on the docket of the U.S. Supreme Court itself.

Let’s backtrack quickly: To understand the Court’s decision one must know that what we call Ellis Island is actually three islands, one of them natural and the other two man made. The immigration station was on island number one; this is now the museum that tourists visit today. The other two islands were hospital and administrative facilities; these are currently off limits while longterm plans for their rehabilitation come to fruition.

Back to the story: In the late 1990s the Supreme Court rules that New York State can claim island number one because historically and culturally the island has always been considered part of New York. The other two islands, says the ruling, are indeed part of Jersey.

You would think this would be a matter of semantics. After all, the immigration museum is managed by the National Park Service. In an interesting lesson on the intricacies of the matter, folks are getting up-in-arms because the governor of New Jersey intends to have his inaugural gala in the Great Hall–which falls on the New York side of the facility.

(image/National Park Service)

Mount Rushmore isn’t going anywhere. Stay home.


As the shutdown has dragged on I have refrained from writing too much about how the stalemate has affected the National Parks. Thankfully, others have been covering the story. Kevin Levin has done an especially good job on his important Civil War Memory blog. Suffice it to say that I am distressed over how some people have been gaming the NPS these past ten days or so. It is even worse when those doing the gaming, and blaming, are the very ones responsible for the closings. I can understand why a general citizen might be confused about why he/she cannot walk the grounds of a national park or monument; a public official should know better. Now, a growing number of people are taking it upon themselves to play hide and seek with park personnel. For anyone contemplating this, I would encourage them to refrain from doing so. First of all, there is no capriciousness involved; the closings are required by federal law. Next, you yourself might mean no harm when crashing the gates of Gettysburg, the Grand Canyon, or wherever. Others who visit are less conscientious. Vandalism and relic hunting are a serious problems at NPS sites even when parks are fully staffed. Your presence, however seemingly innocent, only subtracts from the already stretched skeleton crews keeping an eye on things during the shutdown. You are only making their job more difficult. Mount Rushmore is not going anywhere. For the time being, stay home.

In related news, over the past few days some states have begun negotiating with the Department of the Interior to open sites under the proviso that the states will fund the operating costs and be reimbursed later. Some parks in Utah are opening this weekend. New York is contemplating the same thing for the Statue of Liberty. As at Gettysburg and elsewhere, the New York City tourist economy has taken a big hit in the shutdown. This is news we can use. I do hope they can work it out.

(image/National Park Service)

Aboard the Yankee

Earlier in the week I received an email from reader and fellow blogger Billie Elias. Billie blogs at All in Your Family, which I encourage you to check out. She wrote to tell me that she had recently toured the Yankee, the Ellis Island ferry recently repurposed as a cultural institution, and was wondering if she could comment on my recent post. Because comments had closed, I suggested something better: how about writing a guest spot at the Strawfoot. Graciously, she accepted. Here is her report:

The first time I saw a MacKenzie-Childs piece of pottery was at my mother-in-law’s house. She had several pieces arranged in a group…one was a large pitcher that had stripes, checkerboard and flowers…a melange of varied patterns, all obviously hand-painted. How rustic, I thought…not really my taste.

Ceramic pot

Then one day while strolling up Madison Avenue, I noticed a most unusual shoppe. It had an old-world feel to the outside, with striped awnings that reminded me of jesters costumes. Upon entering, you knew you were in a most unusual space. Everything was cramped and cozy, and there was a large chicken wire cage with live birds inside. Nooks and crannies were everywhere.  A narrow staircase carried you up to another level of retail, and yet another even more quaint stair took you to the teensie top, where there was a wall covered with rooms of a doll house, a la Windsor Castle. There was a tea room up there, too. Every square inch was covered by a tile or a tassel or a cushion or plates or some other creation of a magical couple named Victoria and Richard MacKenzie-Childs.


It’s a style that can really grow on you, especially as the style evolved over the years to include lots of black and white stripes. (Black and White are my personal signature colors, especially as my hair has gone from jet black to salt and pepper).

What a surprise I had when a friend from Amsterdam told me she was going to interview the owner of a bed and breakfast situated on an old ferry boat docked on the Hudson River (since relocated to Red Hook in Brooklyn). I pride myself on being a New Yorker who has her finger on the pulse of cool stuff like this, so I was stunned that I didn’t know such a thing existed. My Google search netted the fact that MacKenzie-Childs were the brain-“childs” behind this. I begged to go along for the ride and she relented. That is how I came to meet the colorful and unusual Victoria.

Billie (right) aboard the Yankee
Billie (right) aboard the Yankee

Being welcomed into the parlor, we were regaled by stories of how the Yankee had ferried immigrants from their ships to Ellis Island and later served in WWI and WWII. Today she is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  The couple is deeply committed to her preservation (not only of the ship, but of everything they touch…talk about reducing one’s footprint!). There’s a chicken coop with live chickens whose eggs are eaten by visitors and residents of the vessel, mounds of old steamer trunks and luggage repurposed for storage, and MacKenzie-Childs accoutrements and eye-candy everywhere the eye can see.

(images/Billie Elias)

Embracing complexity

Immigrants passing through Galveston's immigration depot might be held for further examination at the quarantine facility.
Immigrants passing through Galveston’s immigration depot might be held for further examination at the quarantine facility.

Once when I was a kid my grandfather on my mother’s side was telling me about his parents, both of whom were born in Italy and moved to the United States separately before meeting, marrying, and putting the family on the path that led to me. Despite my greatest efforts to corroborate this piece of family history, all my searching over the years has so far proved fruitless. I began having even greater doubts when I began as a volunteer at Ellis Island National Monument. Folks would come in and state confidently that “My great grandmother came through here in 1867,” or whatever version of their family story passed down to them. The trouble is, Ellis Island did not become an immigration station until 1892. And, even if one’s relatives did come to America between 1892-1924, there is still a good chance they passed through one of the many other immigration stations across the United States. Baltimore, Savannah, New Orleans, or in my great grandparents’ case Boston, are just a few of the other port cities through which the huddled masses were arriving in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I suppose people think “Ellis Island” because a) it was the largest and, b) it is now–quite properly–integral to our national story.

This came back to me a week or so ago when I forwarded this piece to some colleagues at work. It is about the 10,000 Jews who passed through Galveston Texas from 1907-1917 and eventually settled in the Lone Star State. Indeed many thousands from Eastern Europe had come before them. A spectacular exhibit on Galveston as an immigration station toured the country a few years ago, and made a stop at Ellis Island itself. Stories like this are important reminders that much of what we think we know is, at best, incomplete. Think “Immigrants, 1907″ and the narrative shorthand in your head thinks “Lower East Side, tenements, crowded streets.” That is certainly part of the story, but as always the full story is more complicated and interesting. It is a scary proposition. Who wants to think that what they believe might be wrong? I know that fighting such simplifications is something a struggle with every day in my own writing and research. I saw Ellis Island visitors struggling with the same issue when processing that maybe their own history was not so simple. So what is one to do? There is not much to do but accept this and embrace complexity whatever the consequences.

(image/Library of Congress)

The Yankee in Brooklyn

SS Machigonne, later renamed the Yankee
SS Machigonne, later renamed the Yankee

About a year ago I posted an announcement describing an August 2013  tour of the Yankee, a ship built in 1907 that had a rich and colorful history before becoming an immigrant ferry boat at Ellis Island. The Yankee is in fact the last existing Ellis Island ferry boat, which is saying something if you stop and think about it. The ferry is owned by Victoria and Richard Mackenzie-Childs and, until recently, was docked in Hoboken, New Jersey. Well, the couple have moved across the harbor to Red Hook, Brooklyn and have begun a new chapter in the Yankee’s 106 year history by preparing to open it up as a sort of floating meeting place and cultural center. Red Hook is a better neighborhood to make a go of it; it is a former working class neighborhood in our fair borough that has been steadily and inexorably transforming into a hipster conclave in recent years.

This project is destined to be either a disaster or a stroke of genius. I would love to see the venture succeed provided the owners respect the rich tradition of the boat and its unique role in our history. Frivolity is an important part of life, but I get peeved when I visit an important place and find people engaging in some type of organized silliness. I must say they seem to be putting the love in. I may have to take a field trip this fall and investigate for myself.

News flash: Lady Liberty reopening July 4th

It was good news today when the Park Service announced that the Statue of Liberty will be reopening on the 4th of July. It sounds far off, what with snow and slush still on the ground here in the Big Apple, but summer will be here before we know it. I had a feeling an announcement might be coming soon based on what I had been reading online the past week or so. Local, state, and federal officials were pressing harder for a re-opening date. It is understandable. The Statue is a major tourist attraction and is important to the New York and New Jersey economies. I imagine the Ellis re-opening is still a ways off, probably early 2014, though that is just my guess. I’m looking forward to seeing the crowds again when the Governors Island season in late May and people are again flocking to the Battery as the summer moves along.

Sunday morning coffee

I am sitting here having my morning coffee, still adjusting to the turning forward of the clocks. I have refraining from updating on the Liberty/Ellis island situations for the past few weeks because the situation appeared fluid and the news contradictory. Now, it seems that Liberty will be opening this summer and Ellis in 2014. The structural damage was especially severe in Elli’s main building, particularly to the electricity and other infrastructure. This is taking considerable time to repair. The Ellis artifacts are now safely housed in Maryland and will be held and preserved there in the meantime. If you have ever been to Ellis Island you know how special these treasures are. Here is a look at the preservation process, complete with photographs and audio. It is worth ten minutes of your Sunday.

Strike the tents

It was a necessary evil but one of the blights in Battery Park over the past decade has been the complex of white security tents through which visitors were required to pass on the way to Liberty and Ellis islands. The structures went up immediately after 9/11 and were originally supposed to be temporary. Nonetheless, in the manner that these things sometimes play out, they were still in use up until Hurricane Sandy in late 2012. In fairness security at the islands is extraordinarily complicated. Millions crowd onto ferries every year to visit the national monuments. There are overlapping local, state, and federal police jurisdictions. What’s more, the waters fall under the jurisdiction of the Coast Guard. People ferry from New Jersey as well, which adds another layer of complexity. It is all very professional. Most visitors took it in stride, but in the dog days of summer, especially, people were not always in the best of moods when finally reaching Liberty and Ellis. None other than Anthony Weiner–yes, the congressman who couldn’t keep it in his pants before hitting Send to his Twitter page–tried to have them removed a few years ago. His idea was a good one, but the plan he promoted was not feasible. Well, the Park Service announced the other day that the tents will be coming down for good when the islands re-open to the public. The bugs haven’t been entirely worked out yet, but a more steam-lined procedure will be carried out on the islands. Taking down these tents is good news for New Yorkers and for the people from around the world who visit every year.

January Days at Liberty Island

Liberty Island, January 2013
Liberty Island, January 2013

Here’s a quick link to the latest goings on in New York Harbor after Superstorm Sandy.

The last few days have been unseasonably warm here in the city. I hope the weather speeds the rehabilitation process at Ellis and Liberty Islands. I won’t be able to visit until it is open to the general public, but I am eager to get out there and see the islands. Maybe I shouldn’t have been, but I was surprised at the extent of the damage. The devastation and cleanup of the national monuments in New York Harbor is a story ripe for some future historian. What they are doing now will be yet another chapter in the centuries-long history of these places.

Looking forward to spring.

(image/National Park Service)