I began my book City with a section on the theme of Arrival. For me there is one place that symbolises the hopes and fears of everyone who has ever arrived in a city, hoping to begin a new life: Ellis Island. Immigrants were dealt with on Ellis Island from 1892. In the years to 1919, no less than twelve million people passed through this gateway to America. Nearly half settled permanently in New York City. It has been estimated that almost 40% of Americans have an ancestor who passed through Ellis Island.
I visited Ellis Island in 1998 as a tourist and found it a deeply evocative space, with its unforgettable views of the soaring towers of Manhattan - the promised land, as one immigrant, Jacob Riis, described it. For those who were turned away, this little island in the shadow of Lady Liberty became the ‘Island of Tears’, to quote a contemporary journalist. But those who successfully passed the medical examinations and the questioning (How much money do you have? Have you been in jail? Have you been an anarchist?) were free to take the fifteen-minute boat ride to the city of their dreams.
The modernist writer Djuna Barnes used a rather sinister image to describe the sight of New York from the water in her essay 'The Hem of Manhattan' (1917): ‘As we rounded the Battery, New York rose out of the water like a great wave that found it impossible to return again and so remained there in horror, peering out of the million windows men had caged it with’. As the new immigrants, fresh from the traumatic experience of Ellis Island, approached the Barge Office at the south east corner of Battery Park, near Castle Garden, they must have been awe-struck by the skyline of Manhattan, home to the world’s tallest buildings. Their prayers had been answered and their dreams were about to come true. ‘I thought I was in heaven,’ recalled one. ‘My God – was this a city on earth or a city in heaven?’
In Henry Roth’s novel Call It Sleep (1934), Genya Schearl watches New York from the ferry, after passing through Ellis Island:
‘Before her the grimy cupolas and towering square walls of the city loomed up. Above the jagged roof tops, the white smoke, whitened and suffused by the slanting sun, faded into the slots and wedges of the sky. She pressed her brow against her child’s, hushed him with whispers. This was that vast incredible land, the land of freedom, of immense opportunity, that Golden Land.’
A bewildering array of emotions must have consumed those immigrants as they prepared to step foot on American soil. Intense joy mixed with a growing feeling of anxiety. It was, after all, their first day in the New World.
You can view a full-colour sampler of the first section of City, including the essay on Ellis Island, here.