We woke early after a night in our Chinese office building. We’d slept through most of the night with ear plugs and thanks to a heavy dose of jet-lag, but we were soon up and about.
We’d booked a ferry to Ellis Island at 9 AM in order to get the most out of our day. But we have not yet become complete comfortable with the New York subway and though a bit uncertain of what we did wrong we ended up a stop short of where we planned.
In fact the subway is both confusing in regards to direction as well as local versus express trains, but it is also anything but friendly towards people in a hurry, since there are no indications of when the next train might arrive, and sometimes you have to wait awhile.
Wall Street on a Sunday morning
We got out at Broad Street Station in the middle of the financial district. The place was empty on this Sunday morning in October, and apart from a few scattered people both Broad Street and Wall Street stood like movie sets ready for filming. It seemed so unreal with the grey buildings and no sound from traffic or people.
Despite running late after our run in with the New York subway, we took our time absorbing the peacefulness of these historic streets. It was impossible to imagine that these buildings were amongst the leading in regards to world finance. That they usually bustle with energy and people while transactions worth billions pass through.
But I was getting antsy about not reaching our boat and before long we were hurrying down Broad Street and Water Street to Battery Park and the very tip of Manhattan. Fortunately we made it in good time and with my pointy elbows we managed to get through the line easily and secure ourselves a good spot on the roof of the Statue Cruises boat.
The morning was grey and the clouds looming over Manhattan as we set sail – or motor – for the Statue of Liberty. We were on one of the first boats of the day and most people were off to explore the feet of the statue of liberty, meaning that we got the boat almost all to ourselves on the last stretch towards the beautiful Ellis Island.
On January 1, 1892 Ellis Island opened its doors to become a front door for immigration to the US for immigrants travelling from Europe. The first to register was an Irish lass named Annie Moore, which is befitting considering the huge amount of Irish immigrants who have made their way across the Atlantic in the decades following the Great Irish Famine of 1845-1852.
When Annie and her fellow passengers set foot on Ellis Island in January 1892, they were welcomed by one of New York’s most famous inhabitants – Lady Liberty. As a symbol of freedom, equality and liberty she was the welcoming sign for generations of immigrants arriving to New York, and to this day it is difficult to separate the statue with the American history of immigration.
Up until 1954 12 million immigrants would follow in the footsteps of 15 year old Annie Moore and pass through the inspection at Ellis Island. As such 40 pct. of all Americans have ancestors who are registered here and many Europeans find in their family tree relations who have made the journey from one of the large European ports to New York.
After a fire burned down the wooden ramshackle structures on Ellis Island an architectural competition was established in 1897. The iconic main building which greets visitors on Ellis Island were designed by Edward Lippincott Tilton and William A. Boring in a French renaissance style.
Visiting Ellis Island
I was blown away by this museum. Though with a very different past it reminded me of the many KGB and Soviet museums in Eastern Europe. The reason is that unlike so many museums the walls of this place holds the story. You can almost feel the crowded space, the many different languages filling the large waiting hall and the stress of the inspections.
It was coming even more to live with the audio guide we carried around. The rather painful story of a family of three generations reaching Ellis Island only for the grandmother to return to Europe because of an unknown growth on her one finger which stamped her as a safety risk. The family continued through to the US while she returned to the boat and Europe never to see them or here from them again. Not everyone came through and the tragic stories are of those who had their dreams of a better life crushed at these inspection stalls.
But what is most frightening about some of these stories is that they could have been written by immigrants in 2016. Nothing has really changed in how we prick and prod and decide whether fellow human beings are worthy of a better life amongst those of us privileged to be born into it.
Those who are loudest in their cry of ‘America for Americans’ do not have to look very far back to find an ancestor who was an immigrant.
New Immigrations’ Protective League, 1906
Another piece of information which got stuck in my mind after walking through the museum and reading about the many waves of immigration was the discrimination against Chinese and other Asian immigrants.
They did not come on ships from Europe, but crossed the Pacific to such cities as San Francisco. Yet, they were met with much harder conditions and discriminating legal acts from e.g. the State of California. They were feared by the American workers because they took jobs for wages far below that of the American worker. In 1882, this even let to the Chinese Exclusion Act which restricted immigration from China. Moreover, when the African-American population were awarded citizenship through the renewed Naturalization Act of 1870, this did not extend to other non-white people because of fear of the Chinese.
We might think that society changes, but it is a hard reality to consider how our restrictions on immigrations and how we perceive some people as a threat is still fundamentally the same. In US anno 2016, the Chinese have been exchanged with Mexicans and the discriminating legal acts with the visions of a wall. The fear of them taking our jobs, pressuring our wages and dominating our society is the same.
Return to Manhattan
After having explored every crook and nanny of the museum grounds we returned to Battery Park enjoying the iconic skyline of Southern Manhattan.
We made our way to the Charging Bull and on towards Stone Street where we found a place to lunch. The fact that there was mimosa ad libetum for an additional 20 dollars was an added bonus.
After a hearty lunch in Stone Street, we walked through the Financial District and reaching a much more bustling Wall Street than what we had seen in the morning. Yet, the people filling up the street were tourists like us and I felt mighty pleased that we had gotten lost on the subway and by chance had seen the area while it look like a movie set.
We ended up crossing Broadway and Church Street stopping at the 9/11 memorial at the spot of the former twin towers and with the massive Freedom Tower looming over us.
It was quite touching to see the many names written on copper plates surrounding the pools. But what was the most heart-breaking were the single roses tucked in next to a name indicating the birthday of that person had he or she been alive.
There is a beautiful simplicity to the gesture keeping the memory of the people lost more alive than any other part of the memorial could do.
We had planned to visit the top of Freedom Tower, but with the grey sky we decided to pass it for another day.
City Hall – has anyone seen Mike Flaherty?
From my childhood one building in New York stands out before the rest. It is not the Statue of Liberty or Empire State or the Chrysler Building. In fact it is rather unassuming considering that it is nestled in between sky scrapers.
It is the New York City Hall, which every afternoon throughout my youth would appear as a scene break on one of the best television shows of the 90’s – Spin City.
Standing in front of a building which for so long has been imprinted on my memory from watching television was a pretty big thing. Unfortunately, it was difficult to get close and take a proper photo, but seeing the place and the area was a fantastic experience. I get a sudden wish to re-watch those first seasons once again and see if there is more of Lower Manhattan which I can recognise in the show.
From there we crossed in to Tribeca and got to enjoy the afternoon near Pier 25 overlooking Jersey City, before making our way to Canal Street and an evening walk through SoHo in hopes of finding a good restaurant.
With absolutely destroyed feet we gave up our search and made it all the way home to Chinatown where we ended up eating until we couldn’t move at Great NY Noodletown.
After our visit to Ellis Island and learning about the discrimination against Chinese, it felt befitting to return to Chinatown and a proper Chinese meal.
Tomorrow we are off to Philadelphia.