Monday, October 08, 2001


Chinatown, Little Italy and Ellis Island revisited

LOOKING AHEAD by Wally Dobelis

This is part of a continuing series to keep you informed of the city and country pleasures you and your out-of-town guests can enjoy.
This summer we took our foreign visitor, by request, to world-famous Chinatown. Unfortunately, the after-dark scene was disappointing. A glitzy dinner at the Silver Palace on Bowery helped, and we had some funny exchanges about ginseng and its powers, a case of multi-ethnic communications in broken English, at a Mott Street souvenir shop. Politically incorrect humor transcends ethnic differences. A bit dismal, nevertheless.
But then we crossed Canal Street at Mott and got on Hester Street and there were lights, and crowds, and cheerful talk at Puglia Restaurant (I've never seen it without a crowd outside) and at Ferrara's Pasticerria on Grand. And when we turned into Mulberry, the night truly became day - there were people strolling, crowded cafe tables on the sidewalk, waiters greeting you and handing you huge menus, all the way to the Grotta Azzura (the Grotto in SOHO dialect) on corner of Broome Street, the last outpost. Along the way, in front of Umberto's Clam House were two white stretch limos, and one across the street, probably provided by the local Chamber of Commerce to heighten the drama, highlighting the Joey Gallo to John Gotti heritage (there is a crime-oriented walking tour of the area available). An exciting gastronomic multi-ethnic evening would have been in the making, but we had already eaten.
Next day, continuing the ethnic theme, our scheduled tour was Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. After consulting, we decided to skip the Statue and see Ellis, and went downtown by train, to line up at Castle Clinton for tickets, while our guest held a spot in the Ferry boat line - a time-saving measure, accepted by everyone in the line. Buskers greet the people in line with songs and patter ("welcome to the streets of New York, the only place in the world where you can buy a Rolex watch for $25") and a hiphop show. The tour lets you get off at Liberty, a two-hour stopover, three or more if you want to climb the 22-story staircase to the top. An elevator will take you to the pedestal and the exhibits there, but you have to start at the bottom on foot for the visit to the crown.
The story of the statue is that it does not celebrate immigration, as the Emma Lazarus' poem tells us. The French Republicans who put it together did it to advocate democracy, then nonexistent in France under Emperor Napoleon III, and friendship with the US. Edouard de Laboulaye inspired it, Auguste Bartholdi made it in 1877, and Joseph Pulitzer raised the funds to install it, by 1884. It was formed from a four-foot tall clay model in 300 enlarged full-size plaster sections. Then 2.5 mm thick copper sheets were hammered into matching shape (repousse process). A massive wrought-iron tower or pylon was built, to provide the skeleton for attaching the copper skin, flexible and impervious to high winds and temperature changes. The tricky construction was engineered by Gustave Eiffel, who went on to build another interesting structure, named after him, for the Paris Exposition of 1889.
Ellis Island was the gateway to America for immigrants, 1892-1954, though the flow slowed after 1924, when legal restrictions were placed on immigration from East and Southern Europe. Before Ellis, immigrant flow was encouraged and was free of regulation, though some states had limited barriers. Ellis Island has museums, showing the pitiful overcrowded towns of Italy and Poland that prompted the exit of our forebears; there is a shipping line poster showing wistful people watching the liner depart, and glowing pictures and postcards of the ships. The descriptions of the miserable quarters provided for the $35 steerage passengers are not on the posters.
Once on Ellis Island, the immigrants underwent scrutiny for tuberculosis, communicable and debilitating disease, and there were huge quarantine quarters (not restored). Incidentally, women physicians were accepted for employment at Ellis Island. The bad cases, about two percent of immigrants, were shipped back, at the shipping company expense, therefore the screening of immigrants by the shipping lines in Europe was severe.
At its peak Ellis Island processed 5,000 immigrants a day, and the facilities bulged at the seams. The annual numbers: 446,000 in 1892, 179,000 in 1898 (down due to a cholera threat from Europe), 1.1 million in 1906 (up after the revolution of 1905 in Russia), 335,000 in 1927 (restricted by immigration laws). A huge French Renaissance main building (Boring & Tilton, 1898) and 34 additional structures were built on the island. The original three-acre island, annexed by New York in 1691, was expanded to 27 1/2 acres through landfills (construction of New York City subway systems provided the dirt). The fill has now given rise to a claim by New Jersey for the man-made sections of the island, which were placed on a part of the harbor that belongs to our sister state, under a 1834 compact that gave them the waters surrounding Ellis Island. The lawsuit reached US Supreme Court in 1993, and an appointed special master is reviewing the case. New Jersey is insistent, since the island represents revenue from salaries, concessions, and a potential convention center and hotel.
After 1924 the use of Ellis Island as an immigrant processing center declined, and it housed undesirable aliens slated for deportation, as well as a military hospital and a Coast Guard training facility. It was closed and nearly abandoned in 1954; some illegal squatters moved in, and it took an act of President L.B.Johnson in 1965, which made the island a National Park, to put this major monument of our national heritage, the American Dream, under government protection. Consider - about 12 million people moved through Ellis Island, to give birth to 40 percent of our population.
Several plans were presented to National Parks Service for rehabilitation, the most modernistic from Frank Lloyd Wright and Philip Johnson, neither with much respect to history. A groundswell movement to rehabilitate the island to its peak period state started in 1974. It was picked up by Lee Iacocca, chairman of Chrysler Motors, in 1982, and he was appointed by the Department of Interior to head a centennial commission and its fundraising arm, the Statue of Liberty - Ellis Island Foundation. Restoration specialists Beyer Blinder & Belle and Noter Finegold & Alexander designed the main building rehabilitation, which was completed in 1990, at a cost of $162 million.
The visitor walks in, following the path of the immigrant. The ground floor is a baggage hall, and steps lead to the overwhelming 2nd floor Reception hall, 200 ft. long and 100 ft. wide, with 56 ft. vaulted ceiling. Here the exhausted immigrant passed through a row of specialist doctors, who observed, examined and put a chalked code on his clothing if heart, lung and mental problems were suspected. The dreaded eye examiner could cause an instant reject, if trachoma was present. A final examiner asked 29 questions, the most treacherous being whether the immigrant had a job waiting. A positive answer was the wrong one, since contract labor was illegal. (Fiorello LaGuardia was a $1,200 Ellis Island interpreter, for Italian, German and Serbo-Croatian speaking immigrants, working 80-hour weeks before he entered politics.) 20 percent of arrivals were detained, only a half of them because of doctors' chalk marks, the others mostly for lack of money, if their American relatives were late in getting to the island with transportation funds. After five days the missionary and immigrant aid societies (HIAS was one of them) stepped in and guided the unfortunate arrival to his relatives.
The visitor has much to see. A one-hour guided tour takes you past the very impressive Immigrant Wall of Honor, 650 ft with over 500,000 inscriptions, principal fundraising tool of the Foundation. (I found three of my name, none in the spelling given to the 1905 arrivals. Research, research!) A touching movie -Island of Hope, Island of Tears - and oral histories performed by costumed actors (duration 1/2 hour each) bring forth the plight of the immigree. Poverty in the homeland, a 6-day journey in steerage, sleeping in tripledecker bunks squashed together (most people did not wash), soggy bread and a barrel of herrings for shipboard food (lucky the ones who packed a basket with sausages and black bread). And the Reception Hall, and the three floors of museum material - walls of passports, tickets, photographs of people hard at dirty immigrant work, and serious-faced picknicking in folk costumes, alone and with their fraternal organizations. America is a hard country. Go visit the Island on a sunny day.
Go, Yankees! Baltimore in four, Atlanta in five!

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