Ellis Island, the Tenement Museum, and the Immigrant Experience
My wife and I revisited New York City last October with the specific goal of experiencing Ellis Island, that major port of entry to the United States through which millions of immigrants flowed from 1892 until its closing in 1954. I was particularly interested in visiting it since my maternal grandparents both emigrated from Poland early in the twentieth century, entering through the “Port of New York.” My paternal grandmother came from Germany in the same period, and my paternal great-grandparents arrived somewhat earlier. Like most who came, they surely arrived with few possessions. What they all possessed in common was the desire to start a new life in America, a life of opportunity which, for various reasons, could not be realized in the old country.
I have always felt a connection with the old country, whether through my genes or from the brief exposure to my grandparents and relatives in Chicago before we came to California in 1948 (See my post of 7/14/13, Chicago: Returning to My Boyhood Roots). Ellis Island was a must-see for me.
It was with an air of excitement that we boarded the boat at Castle Garden in Battery Park on the lower tip of Manhattan. As we got underway, the tall skyscrapers of the financial district slowly dissolved in the misty fog which enveloped the morning.
Soon, Lady Liberty emerged from the fog as we passed nearby. One can imagine the thrill and excitement of the millions who had the same experience many decades ago. Whereas my wife and I embarked that morning from our comfortable boutique hotel in the heart of Manhattan with a specific plan for the rest of our stay, the immigrants left far-away places, family and friends – forever, often without knowing what to expect at their new destination or even where to go once they left their ship. No small number failed to survive the 12 or more days of the voyage. The poorest of these travelers – and there were many – were relegated to the hell of steerage on the ship, packed like animals far below the deck where no daylight was even visible.
Our visit to the island was a moving experience, made vivid by the realization that I am separated by only one generation from the immigrant experience. I know in my heart that so much of who I am germinated from the seed of that background. My responses to the world and my outlook on life have always seemed to me distinctly colored by a lingering sense of the immigrant experience, somehow mysteriously passed along, whether by genes or by family example.
One of my most vivid memories in that regard involves my mother’s father who radiated his joy at becoming both a naturalized citizen of the United States and a homeowner in his new country. I recall distinctly his no-nonsense, old-world attitude toward taking responsibility for one’s actions which could best be characterized by the admonition: “You made your bed, and now you will have to lie in it.” When I got into trouble around the house after being warned, he would waggle his finger at me and say, “See, I told you so!” After many years as a barber near city hall in Chicago’s Loop, my grandfather was able to purchase his first home, and I know that he was very proud of his stake in the “new world.”
In a previous post, I showed a favorite photograph of mine from 1944 showing me at age 4 posing with my young parents, grandparents, and my uncle Ed in front of their little brick home in a west suburb of Chicago. It sits on my desk as a constant reminder of my roots.
I left Chicago in 1948 when my father’s job took us to the west coast. To my ultimate chagrin, I had very little contact with our Chicago relatives after that. In retrospect, I now wish I had the opportunity to grow up in their midst, to ask my grandparents about their experiences coming to America! I so wish I had the opportunity to learn these things. After many years away, my wife and I visited Chicago in 2004, and that little brick house was still there, looking exactly like the image which resides on my desk and in my memory. So many life-lessons abound at Ellis Island for the young and the old, alike!
The Tenement Museum in New York: Showcase For the Hard but Often Happy Immigrant Experience
The day after our Ellis Island excursion, we visited the Tenement Museum at 97 Orchard Street, on the lower east side of Manhattan. This was the perfect complement to our Ellis Island experience. My wife had discovered this museum which is a five-story brick tenement building built in 1863 near what is known as “Little Italy.” After decades of housing mostly new immigrant families, it was closed down in 1935 in the face of new building fire codes which were often financially prohibitive to implement. Many such buildings were bulldozed, but this one stayed intact to accommodate small businesses which operated on the ground floor level and were thus not affected by the new codes. The upper stories were vacated and essentially sealed off in a virtual time- capsule for many years, from 1935 to 1988. A search at that time for a tenement museum site led to its selection as a perfect, preserved example dating from past decades with a long history of housing generations of new arrivals in America.
We toured the premises and received a first-hand look at what tenement life was like for so many immigrant families. It is hard to imagine a single indoor toilet for all the residents of the building – and outhouses outside. Toilet paper consisted of newspaper squares hung on the wall. “Apartments” were usually three rooms total, each one being very tiny. Do you like privacy? “Fuhgeddaboudit” as they say in New York! Despite the hardships, many accounts handed down from those who lived under these conditions indicate that, as youngsters, “they were poor, but they were happy.” They knew nothing better, but they had known worse. There were no Madison Avenue advertising agencies within earshot extolling the “good life” that exists out there…somewhere, for someone. People knew everyone else in the building and in the teeming streets, and they generally looked after one another.
Immigrants entering America were buoyed by the opportunities and prospects open to them in their new homeland…if they worked hard and persevered. If they did not, they knew that their future was not so rosy. Most came here hungry to capitalize on their new-found opportunity.
Great Lessons and a Sense of Perspective for Today’s Youngsters
It is so easy for today’s middle-class youngster in America to never acquire accurate compass bearings as they travel the journey called “growing up.” For many, and perhaps for most, it seems they have never been provided any realistic perspective. They move through life with no sense of history, let alone any interest in it, taking everything for granted as if it were a birthright – and still they want more. The attitude promoted by the Madison Avenue marketers that “more is better,” and you deserve more because you want more, is a corroding influence on their outlook and attitudes; moreover, it is the antithesis of a mature, historically-based outlook which reminds us that more materialism is not necessarily better, and that to deal maturely with the present and the future, one should understand the lessons of the past.
The immigrants to this country had learned the hard lessons of the old world and came here realizing that “having more” and getting ahead first required more education and plenty of hard work. Only then could they expect more comfort and security in their lives. Only then could they reasonably expect to own more “stuff.” There was no sense of entitlement, certainly not among the children – they all came to terms with reality while staring it squarely in the face.
Our Granddaughters and the Ellis Island Documentary Film: Receiving the Message
Two weeks ago, our two granddaughters from Southern California stayed with us for several days. They are ages eight and eleven, and well on their way in life. They are among the fortunate middle-class children whose parents want the best for them. The girls have busy, active lives like so many of their counterparts, and that is good.
Linda and I believe strongly in the lessons of history and the value of a realistic life-perspective; accordingly, we all sat down together and watched the short film used in the Ellis Island visitor center called “Ellis Island: Island of Hope, Island of Tears.” The immigrant story is beautifully told in pictures, film footage, and in the words of many immigrants themselves. If you have children and grandchildren who have no way to get to The Island in person, find the DVD on the internet and show it to them. We brought home several copies from our visit there.
I can think of no better classrooms for such important life-lessons than the two places in New York which we have discussed. I wish they could be made a mandatory experience for all youngsters. Recommended for adults, too!