At the beginning of the summer I added my chapter from The Wonder of It All into Academic Works with the help of a colleague at work. She recommended to me and others that we post our efforts on social media, etc. And so I figured I would link here to “What a Day with a Park Volunteer Can Do.” Essentially it is the story of how I came to Governors Island 5-6 years back. They asked us not to use names in our submissions. Here though I can say that the volunteer in the title is the great Sami Steigmann. Sami if you are reading this: we will do that interview sometime over the summer.
I noted with interest today that the city of Liverpool is to build its own immigration museum. This will not be the first museum in Europe dedicated to the mass exodus from the Old World to the New. Antwerp for one has its Red Star Line Museum, which opened in 2013. In my time volunteering at Ellis Island I always stressed that immigration to the U.S. at the turn of the last century was not a one way street and that the human drama was taking place on the other side of the Atlantic as much as it was at Ellis Island, Baltimore, Charleston, and the other port cities of the United States. Anything less is just half the story.
The Liverpool immigration museum seems to be part of city’s larger strategy to emphasize its cultural heritage. Most famously city leaders plug The Beatles and Mersey’s importance to the band’s sound and rise. And why shouldn’t the city do that?; the rough and tumble town was integral to who the group was. Hamburg, itself another port city instrumental to the Beatles development, opened its own immigration museum, the BallinStadt, in 2007. European immigration to the United States crested a hundred years earlier, 1907, but held steady until the onset of the Great War seven years later, when the sea routes were disrupted and Atlantic travel dropped off precipitately.
(image by G-Man via Wikimedia Commons)
The world became a smaller place this month with the passing of William Zinsser. A memorial service was held in his honor yesterday here in the city. I wrote about Zinsser way back in 2011 when he was still writing his weekly column for The American Scholar. Then in his late eighties, he was crafting 700 word pieces of grace and elegance on any topic he chose every Friday. A year after I wrote the vignette, Zinsser–then in his 90th year–won a National Magazine Award for digital commentary; he had mastered the internet just as he had mastered writing for newspapers and magazines in the heyday of periodical publishing in the middle of the twentieth century. The reason he stayed relevant is that he never strayed from his core belief: simplify your writing and thereby find your humanity.
I could go on, but won’t. Here is the homage I wrote in March 2011:
For several years in the mid-2000s I collaborated with two teachers and a librarian on a writing and research module at a local high school. The four of us taught the basics of scholarship to a group of Advanced Placement English and History juniors. The final assignment was a five-six page paper. I continually stressed the importance of writing clearly and concisely. We kicked things off each term with a reading and discussion of George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” One school year, when the budget permitted, we distributed copies of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style to each student that were theirs to keep. Most students eventually “got it,” but I was always struck by how tenaciously some clung to the belief that pretentious, ornate prose was the way to the teacher’s heart and a good grade. In his most recent “Zinsser on Friday” posting, the incomparable William Zinsser recounts a challenge once posed to him by an editor: submit a travel piece not to exceed 300 words. Not wanting to stray too far from home, he selected a certain island “a mere subway and ferry ride away.” Read the results.
(Note that the link immediately above is now dead. Because The American Scholar may link to it again, I am going to leave it there. Here is the Ellis Island piece.)
(image/Library of Congress; permalink: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/97501086/)
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.
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)
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)
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.