Gateway To America

New York: On Ellis Island and in Manhattan's Lower East Side, the immigrant experience comes to life.


In New York Harbor, the wind churns the charcoal waters into a froth. I stand shoulder-to-shoulder with hundreds of others on the ferry's deck, shivering. Today, we huddled masses, yearning to be warm, carry cameras and coffees and tote bags, but imagine other journeys, not across a harbor, but across an ocean.

Cover:The ferry approaches Ellis Island, and all eyes focus on the main building, with its brick-and-limestone Beaux Arts facade, big arched windows and copper-topped turrets poking into the sky. As we cross the gangplank, it seems fitting that the latest arrivals chatter not only in English, but in Spanish, German, Italian, Japanese. A new millennium, a melting pot still.

We've all come to look for America, not on Broadway or at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in Times Square or atop the Empire State Building, but in the heart of the New York of immigrants. I begin on Ellis Island, where the new lives began, then head for the tenement houses, churches, synagogues, shops, delis and streets of Manhattan's Lower East Side first American home for millions of immigrants.

Other museums move you, inspire you, enchant you. The Ellis Island Immigration Museum changes you. So, too, does the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, a former tenement house where the stories, photos and, especially, the meticulously restored immigrant apartments provide a remarkable look at life as the new Americans lived it. To see the faces, to hear the voices, to know the stories is to never again simply hear the word "immigrant" without thinking of the journey of hope, hardship and, at times, heartbreak.

The ferry passes the Statue of Liberty, and I think of the immigrants who stood on decks of ships. They exclaimed the Lady's name in many tongues and wept with joy after the cross-Atlantic journey in the thronged bowels of ships' steerage sections. Then they arrived at Ellis Island, the "golden door" to America from 1892 to 1954 for more than 12 million people who came here to escape poverty, war, famine, political oppression, religious persecution.

Just inside the entrance to the Ellis Island museum's main building, in the baggage room, battered wooden trunks, suitcases, straw baskets, carpetbags and sacks lie in piles on the floor, framed by life-size photographs of immigrants. The faces are at once filled with anticipation, hope and terror. The people look bedraggled, even though many wear their best clothes for their arrival in America.

I stare into the faces of war refugees outside the American Consulate in Warsaw in 1920, then read the words of a Russian Jewish immigrant recalling the scene 66 years later: "In Warsaw, we stood six months to get passports. ... People stood day and night in line. People were dying in line to get a passport."

Another Russian Jewish immigrant, Katherine Beychok, remembered the uniforms Ellis Island officials wore when she arrived in 1910: "That had a terrible effect on me; we were scared of uniforms. That goes back to the Russian uniforms we were running away from."

And in a superb 30-minute film called "Island of Hope, Island of Tears," another immigrant says: "I decided if I was rejected, I would jump into the water. I would never go back to Russia."

The immigrants left their baggage and filed up a staircase to the Registry Room, cavernous and domed, with a red quarry tile floor, a soaring Italian tile ceiling and half-circle windows that look out on Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty.

The room is mostly empty now, save for a few worn wooden benches in rows and lecterns that inspectors used. But you can almost hear the babble of languages and the babies crying, almost see the multitudes, row upon row, packed like so much chattel on benches and floors. At the top of the stairs, doctors spent just seconds examining each new arrival and marking any "defects" with chalk on the immigrants' shoulders: L for lameness, E for eye conditions, X for suspected "mental defect," B for back problems, C for conjunctivitis, Pg for pregnancy.

Those who passed the physical once-over then faced harried inspectors who would ask the standard questions: Name? Age? Are you a polygamist or anarchist? Do you have money with you? A job lined up in America? (A "yes" to that one meant immediate deportation, so immigrants wouldn't take a job from an American.) Inspectors asked women traveling alone if they had "escorts" awaiting them - to keep potential prostitutes out of the country.

Puzzles, math problems and literacy tests offered in many languages provided further screening designed to deny entry to anyone who would be marked with the chalk letters "LPC" - likely to become a public charge.

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