American Scene: From Ellis Island to Lax

From Ellis Island to Lax

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In 1924, laws were changed to require that immigrants be approved or rejected at consular offices overseas. Then came the Depression and a reversal of roles: Ellis became a deportation center. The approach of World War II would bring in refugees, of course, but the great migration of immigrants from Europe to the U.S. had ceased, as had the original purpose of Ellis Island. In 1955, it was put up for sale -- 27 1/2 acres, 35 buildings, good view -- but at $6.5 million the government found no buyers. Vandals had the run of the place.

Today workboats leave at all hours from the Battery, hauling hard-hatted construction crews and materials for the restoration. The Great Hall is a maze of scaffolding. Fans hum everywhere, drying out plaster. Bare bulbs hang down all over. Occasionally there is the frantic sound of beating wings, a gull or a pigeon come in through a smashed window. Here and there is the faintest scent of lye.

In the kitchen are rusted cast-iron stoves, muffin tins in the ovens, wire whisks the size of basketballs suspended from a rack. From down a dim passageway comes the sound of boots crunching glass underfoot, and out into the light appears a rat patrol, four hard hats spreading poison. From the darkest corners the beams of contractors carrying out inspections by flashlight dance around like fireflies.

"This is it," says a young timekeeper on one of the construction jobs. "The biggest project in America. Liberty. Freedom. What this country is all about. If I do my job well, some day I'll be project manager, the big cheese."

And out in the slip where the lighters used to moor (the ferry Ellis Island, scuttled by decay after logging 1 million nautical miles crossing to Manhattan, now lies beneath the water there), two deckhands on a workboat sprawl out sunning themselves. "Everywhere you look there's a study team combing over something. I'm surprised they ain't started strip-searching us yet. Everything's historic! Jeez, I bet I'd get busted if I tried to take a damn Coke bottle off this island."

"Hey, easy there, Sal. My great-grandfather came through here."

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