Ellis Island After the Flood

by Jordan Larson


For more than thirty years, long after its time as the “gateway to the American dream,” Ellis Island sat empty and abandoned in New York Harbor. The island didn’t have much of a purpose after the Immigration and Naturalization Service relocated to an office in Manhattan in the nineteen fifties, and it was declared surplus federal property until a decision could be made about what to do with it. Eventually, after becoming part of the National Park Service’s Statue of Liberty National Monument, Ellis Island was restored and given over to tourists in 1990. Ferries from New York and New Jersey now usher millions of visitors over to the twenty-seven-and-a-half-acre island every year, where families trace their lineage and pose for photos with the Manhattan skyline. The distinct French Renaissance style and pristine red-tiled roof of the Main Immigration Building give the illusion that the place hasn’t changed much since the early twentieth century; Inside, the Immigration Museum’s three stories stand as testament to Ellis Island’s years of inspection lines and medical exams. But as much as it seems frozen in time, and for all the work put into making it a historical landmark and tourist destination, Ellis Island is disappearing. The destruction of Hurricane Sandy, which left the island briefly underwater and caused millions in damage, has made it clear that Ellis Island history is not static, nor is its presence a given. Climate change is working its way into Ellis Island — its structures, museum exhibits, and, subtly, its narrative. The landmark’s damage and repairs are now a tug of war with nature, as well as a battle to determine what constitutes history and why.

When Hurricane Sandy hit New York and New Jersey in October 2012, sea level at the Battery peaked at fourteen feet, nine feet above the already high tide.Nearly all of Ellis Island — and three-quarters of nearby Liberty Island — were covered by floodwaters. Buildings on both islands were flooded, resulting in an estimated seventy-seven million dollars in damage. Though the museum’s photos and artifacts were largely untouched by the storm — floodwaters reached only the top step of the Main Immigration Building — the loss of climate control systems meant that nearly all the museum’s historical artifacts had to be evacuated. It took the specially convened National Park Service Museum Emergency Response Team six weeks of cataloguing and packing to move more than one million artifacts to a Park Service storage facility in Maryland, where they will remain until repairs on the Main Immigration Building are completed in late 2015; while Ellis Island and its Immigration Museum reopened to visitors in October 2013, they remain largely devoid of history and its objects. As the New York Times noted last June, “many of the artifacts that evoke the immigrant experience — passports, steamship tickets, letters of introduction, faded suitcases, original photographs and traveling outfits — are missing.”

For the two million who have visited Ellis Island since it reopened in a year and a half ago, the false tasks of separating humans from nature, and history from the present, have been made more difficult. The Immigration Museum stands largely empty, with abundant signage reminding visitors just why that’s so. Even the Museum’s exhibit on Hurricane Sandy’s impact is mostly composed of space, its minimalism only highlighting the results of evacuation. “Weathering the Storm,” tucked away in the third floor temporary exhibit space, is a sparse and somber display of photographs and text which document the damage caused by the storm and how the National Park Service responded. But, above all, the exhibit is there to reassure the public — an optimistic apology of the corporate “please excuse our mess” variety. “Luckily, the Statue of Liberty and the historic Ellis Island buildings suffered little or no major damage. Thus began a cleanup and recovery operation that continues to this day,” reads the cheerful exhibit copy. “The National Park Service is not only rebuilding, but rebuilding in smart, sustainable ways. NPS staff is deciding how to meet that challenge.” (The museum’s café actually does have a sign that reads, “Please pardon our appearance as we remodel our Café due to Hurricane Sandy.”) Other exhibits, like “Ellis Island Chronicles,” contain similar messages, like one poster preemptively asking, “Where are the Artifacts?” The exhibit “Treasures from Home” stands dark and blocked off from museum-goers with makeshift barricades, holding only mannequins and empty displays.

On the Main Immigration Building’s lower levels and the surrounding structures, the threat of climate change is being built into electrical and mechanical systems necessary for sustaining the museum. When possible, much of the essential equipment — like boilers, electrical transformers, and chillers — is being moved up out of the floodplain. A twelve-foot mezzanine has been built in the island’s powerhouse in order to lift equipment off the ground level, and the Main Immigration Building’s basement will now be a bit emptier, though weather-proofed items like air handlers will remain there. As Parks Service project manager Robert Parrish told me, it’s necessary to ask, “How is our conducting this project going to affect climate change, but then also how is climate change, rising sea levels, going to affect the project in the long run?”

In the course of making those decisions, certain items and periods of history have had to be sacrificed. In order to begin restructuring, repairing, and replacing infrastructure, the project underwent a Section 106 review to assess the impact of such changes on the historical fabric of Ellis Island. Certain changes — like moving large air handlers up into the museum proper — were impossible, but replacing boilers that dated back to the island’s nineteen eighties renovation were acceptable. After all, Ellis Island is about preserving certain pieces of history, not all of it.

Ellis Island is a tribute to the history of twelve million immigrants and their descendants, but it’s also a tribute to boundaries. The island is demarcated into various parts and jurisdictions: A 1998 Supreme Court case ruled that the island be shared by New York and New Jersey; the former controls the original 3.3 acres that was acquired by New York in 1808, while the island’s remaining 24.2 acres — created with landfill from New York’s subway system — is considered part of New Jersey. Ellis Island is also subdivided into three parts, as multiple islands and extensions were added between 1890 and 1934. The Park Service manages the first island, including the Main Immigration Building and museum, while Save Ellis Island, a non-profit, manages islands two and three.

Across the ferry dock to the southwest, Save Ellis Island has responded to Hurricane Sandy by opening the 22-building hospital complex to visitors for the first time in half a century. The idea to open up the hospital complex came in the wake of Sandy, which destroyed the hospital exhibit in the Immigration Museum, according to Janis Calella, president of Save Ellis Island. About two-dozen life-size photographs now plaster the walls and windows of the decrepit hospital complex, once the largest such medical institution in the country. The work of French artist JR, Unframed — Ellis Island features portraits of immigrant children and nurses, doctors and patients. The installation both seeks to collapse time and make it more present; even with the intruding, realist photographs, viewers are constantly reminded of the distance between themselves and those who passed through the hospital’s walls decades ago. Closed since 1954, the hospital buildings have mostly been left in the state in which they were found, strewn with detritus and damaged from half a decade of weather and wear. Because of the buildings’ exposed state, Unframed, meant to substitute the museum’s missing artifacts, is even more susceptible to natural forces. As the Times notes, “Nature has already transformed some of the images: On the ancient lockers, rust seeps through the white uniforms of the nurses; people in a group of immigrant detainees appear nervous in a decayed room open to the lapping river.”

“Thinking about natural history and human history is like looking at one of those trick drawings — a skull that becomes a seated woman, a wineglass that becomes a pair of kissing profiles — it’s hard to see them both at the same time,” Rebecca Solnit writes in her book Savage Dreams. In the case of Ellis Island, we may be witnessing something closer to a collapse of human and natural history, in which the latter drowns out the former.

This negotiation between human and natural history has a long tradition within the National Park Service, which has been responsible for Ellis Island for as long as it’s been attracting tourists and putting on exhibits. Yosemite, the country’s first national park — established as a state park in 1864, before the creation of the Park Service in 1916 — is a paragon of the picturesque and the sublime. As Solnit writes, in the late nineteenth century, after white settlers first “discovered” it, Yosemite became a tourist attraction for elites and naturalists alike; the attention of future Sierra Club founder John Muir and photographer Carleton Watkins were critical to the area becoming a protected park and national symbol. But what also led visitors and benefactors to conceive of Yosemite as a pure and sublime place was the concept of landscape art, a fairly recent occurrence originating among European elites. The birth and subsequent popularity of representational art which took landscape, rather than humans, as its subject, in turn led to a newfound appreciation of nature. Sightseers began looking upon nature much as they would look upon a painting, Solnit argues. Nature — at least when it’s beautiful — is cast as static, unchangeable, and, most importantly, separate from humans and our history. And while Yosemite is still considered the epitome of natural beauty, a place which Americans have a duty to visit and enjoy, the fact that Yosemite was inhabited by the indigenous Ahwahneechee people before white settlers invaded in 1851 has gone ignored by history’s dominant narrative. Treating Yosemite as a singular and untouchable object, devoid of a history or a future, bars us from grappling with its history of invasion and forced location of those who lived there before it became a live-action painting.

This is why the Park Service’s more recent management of primarily historical, rather than natural, sites — like Ellis Island, the USS Arizona monument, or George Washington’s birthplace — makes perfect sense: The agency has always treated natural parks as museums. But whether the landmark in question is a natural park or a historical site, treating it as a museum has the same effect, jettisoning space away from us and our present. As Edith Wharton noted, “Museums are cemeteries, as unavoidable, no doubt, as the other kind, but just as unrelated to the living beauty of what we have loved.”

Such demarcations — between human and natural history, and between beautiful nature and the rest of it — remain a guiding principle, and source of tension, within the Park Service. As National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis wrote in a 2010 climate change response strategy, “I believe climate change is fundamentally the greatest threat to the integrity of our national parks that we have ever experienced.” But how do you protect nature from itself? Nature, in this context, gets qualified; agency-protected nature is sliced away from the nature surrounding it. Fearing the nature that has been destroyed by humans, the agency prioritizes saving the nature that’s only managed by humans.

Of course, certain boundaries are necessary; not all forms of cultural or natural history are worth preserving. But the question of who gets to make those decisions, and why, remains. After all, historical symbols and places are meant to remain always, reminding us of exactly what we want them to remind us of, forever.

It’s unclear exactly when rising sea levels may make visiting or maintaining Ellis and Liberty Islands impossible. It could be as soon as fifty years, but will likely not happen during our lifetimes. “In a place like Ellis Island, and even Liberty Island, there’s only so much resiliency you can do because of the historic nature of the buildings,” says Parrish. “We’re not gonna put the statue up on stilts.”

The Statue of Liberty National Monument is only one of more than one hundred national parks directly threatened by climate change, in the form of rising sea levels and storm surges. As the Union of Concerned Scientists lamented in a report published last spring, “the geographic and cultural quilt that tells the American story is fraying at the edges — and even beginning to be pulled apart — by the impacts of climate change.”

But the relationship between nature and history isn’t a zero-sum game; the two are thoroughly inextricable. The enforcement of boundaries that’s inherent to much of formulating history, protecting National Parks, and designating meaning doesn’t seem to be quite holding up against the forces of natural change. At work on Ellis Island now is the realization that stasis is not a given — nor is it natural. You can’t keep things the same without changing them a little. And just as history is always being made, preserving history — and nature — is a creative process.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons