A Journey's End

Baltimore was the place where nearly 2 million immigrants first set foot in America and began new lives. Now, a memorial will mark their arrival.

March 12, 2006|By EDWARD GUNTS | EDWARD GUNTS,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

THE SPOT WHERE HULL STREET meets the south Baltimore waterfront played an important role in American history, but you'd never know it just by glancing around.

It doesn't have the powerful land mass of Federal Hill, or the well-preserved buildings of Fort McHenry. Not even a plaque to explain its significance.

But what this area lacks in artifacts, it more than compensates for in authenticity. This stretch of Locust Point is the place where nearly 2 million men, women and children from other countries first arrived by boat to the United States from the early 1800s to 1914. That makes it one of the busiest ports of entry in the nation during that period; in some years it was second in volume only to New York's Ellis Island.

After years of relative obscurity, this section of Baltimore's shoreline is about to get long-overdue recognition. At 11:15 a.m. Wednesday, community leaders will break ground for the Baltimore Immigration Memorial and Liberty Garden, a $4.2 million effort to turn nearly an acre of open space into a public attraction and educational resource for people who want to explore their roots.

The nonprofit group behind the project plans to extend the waterfront promenade, create a commemorative sculpture garden that doubles as a public park and build a pavilion where people can learn about the city's role as an immigration center.

The goal is to identify the foot of Hull Street as a portal for generations of immigrants who came to the United States seeking better lives. It's the culmination of a decade-long effort to put this spot of the harbor on the map and the start of an effort to document and preserve the history of Baltimore's many immigrant communities, past and present.

"Close to two million of our forefathers and mothers first set foot on American soil in Baltimore. Yet there is not so much as a single historic marker to commemorate those who chose this place as the gateway to their new life in America," said Ellen von Karajan, president of the Baltimore Immigration Memorial Board.

"We have memorials to so many other things, but nothing to immigration," said Brigitte Fessenden, the group's vice president. As a result, "a lot of people don't realize how many immigrants went through Baltimore's harbor as their first place in the New Land, as it was called. This memorial will not only honor those immigrants who came before us but also today's immigrants, whose dreams and aspirations probably do not differ much from those of their predecessors."

Telling Baltimore's immigration story at this location is difficult because, while the area offers sweeping views of the harbor and the Fells Point historic district across the way, it contains none of the vestiges of the days when most of the immigrants arrived.

Unlike Ellis Island, a public attraction supported by the federal government, the Hull Street corridor has no immigration depot to restore, no well-trod paths for visitors who want to trace their ancestors' footsteps.

What it has is the water itself, and a few of the landmarks that 19th-century travelers might have spotted as they came into the harbor, such as Fort McHenry and Chase's Wharf.

"When you don't have anything physical, it becomes a major challenge," von Karajan said.

In addition, she said, the restorers of Ellis Island "did such a fantastic job of putting it back together and marketing it as the gateway to America that many people don't realize there were other major ports of entry."

To help tell Baltimore's immigration story, the group turned to Alex Castro, a local artist and designer whose work often involves combining the old and the new.

During a recent tour of the site, Castro said he envisions a memorial that will be a place of contemplation and quiet inspiration for anyone who seeks it out.

"This is not a museum," he said. "It's a place to orient oneself to the many places in Baltimore that speak to immigration history and a place to collect oneself, in a quiet way. It's a place to begin to tell the story of where the ships docked, how people took trains to the Midwest, what the city looked like from the water ..."

Ultimately, it's a place about aspiration, he said, since the immigrants who traveled to Baltimore had high hopes for their new lives in America. "We're all human," he said. "That's the one thing we share. We all have aspirations that pull us along."

The Baltimore Immigration Memorial Board was founded by local businessman Ronald Zimmerman, Sr., and its members have been working for more than a decade to establish a physical presence on the waterfront.

They are encouraged by the recent establishment of Europe's first museum of immigration, Auswandererhaus (which is German for Emigration House), in Bremerhaven, Germany. It opened last summer and already has drawn 600,000 people. If that port city can mount a successful memorial to people who left their homelands, Fessenden said, Baltimore should have a successful memorial to those who came to start a new life.

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