Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
These words from the sonnet The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus, written in 1883, are familiar to people worldwide and instantly call to mind the inspiring sight of the Statue of Liberty. Millions of immigrants saw Lady Liberty as a beacon of hope and a sign of welcome as they completed one journey across the Atlantic only to begin another one in this great, dynamic, and exciting land called “America.”
On a blustery spring-break day, my wife and I took our boys, along with two of our best friends and their children, to see the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. I hadn’t been there since I was 11 or 12, and I wondered how many people living in the tri-state area have never been there at all. I know my grandmother, nearly 98 years old, born and raised in Manhattan, has never been (although, if you want to get technical, she did come through Ellis Island in utero). It seems we often take for granted that with which we become familiar. When I lived in Florida, a mere 10 minutes from the beach, I often didn’t get there for a month or more at a stretch. So, I ask you now: Have you visited the Statue of Liberty? Whether it’s been years or never, now is a great time to visit with your kids and be inspired by the great history of our country.
The ferry from Liberty State Park in New Jersey stops first at Ellis Island, and I recommend getting off the boat for a visit. More than 12 million immigrants came through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954, and it is estimated that more than one-third of all Americans today are descended from those who entered the United States at this point. That means if not you, then there’s a good chance either the person on your left or on your right at this very moment is one of those Americans (I am proud to say that includes yours truly). Ellis Island holds a special place in American history not so much because any singular event happened here, but because of exactly the opposite. It was a workaday location, processing immigrants day in and day out for 60-odd years. Unlike a place such as Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where the Declaration of Independence actually was signed, Ellis Island is a notable location on a personal level since it maintains intimate connections with more than 100 million Americans alive today—even if they’ve never visited.
Because the story at Ellis Island is, at its core, about people and not objects, unlike many other museums, there’s not a lot of “stuff” in display cases. There are artifacts, to be sure: suitcases, clothing, and other personal items to help us present-day dwellers understand the immigrant experience. However the main story is in the photographs and the actual words of the people; people of every race, creed, color, religion, ethnicity, and nationality. You really get to see the “Great Melting Pot” that made, and continues to make, the United States the greatest nation on earth. As Bill Murray said in Stripes, “We’re Americans, with a capital ‘A,’ huh? You know what that means? Do ya? That means that our forefathers were kicked out of every decent country in the world. We are the wretched refuse. We’re the underdog. We’re mutts!”
I myself am a mutt: half Polish and half Irish. And in those photographs of Poles and Irish at Ellis Island, I can see the strong ethnic bloodlines; they look so much like the faces in the yellowed family photographs I have at home. In the Registration Hall, I imagined how 100 years ago, my great-grandparents, excited yet undoubtedly nervous, waited to be processed: My then 16-year-old great-grandmother left her village in eastern Poland and walked across Europe by herself to get to Holland to take a ship to America; and from Ireland, my other great-grandparents came with five children in tow and one on the way. Delve into your own family’s arrival by checking out the Ellis Island research Web site.
While Ellis Island may be a more compelling story at the personal level, The Statue of Liberty is the world-famous symbol of the collective stories, and the two places complement each other perfectly. Another short ferry ride and you arrive at Liberty Island, home to Lady Liberty herself. Until you see her up close, it’s hard to appreciate just how enormous she is: Often the first recognizable landmark an immigrant would see as he or she sailed into New York Harbor, a symbol of the “Promised Land,” Liberty also has been a symbol of home for American soldiers going off to and returning from war, representing all they were fighting for. When my father was stationed in England (where I was born) while on active duty in the U.S.A.F., my mother recounts how she wept tears of joy upon spotting the Statue of Liberty as our ship sailed into New York Harbor (yes, we took a ship back to the States; it was the 1960s, after all).
Given her innate symbolism, it’s fitting that Liberty’s crown is now open to the public again for the first time since 9/11. If you go, be sure to make reservations well in advance, either for the monument (the base) or the crown (this is required, as you cannot purchase passes to get into the base or statue once on Liberty Island). Prices are certainly reasonable: $15 for adults and $8 for children 12 and under. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The time to experience this incredible piece of our nation’s history is now. You’ll be glad you did.
The writer of The Balanced Guy, Roman Horoszewski, is not particularly balanced but he’s trying to be. He makes an effort by not only doing “guy stuff,” but also by spending time with his three sons and wife while attempting to remain informed about the world around him. He and his family live in the Princeton, N.J. area. His blog is @ http://thebalancedguy.blogspot.com/.