Two Sides of Liberty: from the Islands to the Plaza – Part 1

“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-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

On a bronze plaque mounted inside in the Statue of Liberty is the famous sonnet by Emma Lazarus.  A clarion call to the world at the turn of the 20th Century for the oppressed and downtrodden, calling  them to a land without tyranny, built on opportunity and democracy.  An idea and an ideal.  A promised land whose most potent symbol was, and still is, that statue that greets every ship entering New York.

Does this ideal still hold good today? Is New York now, and has it really ever been, a place where the poor and huddled masses are welcomed and have a voice?  I didn’t intend to be writing this kind of post but on our trip to NY my daughter and I spent a day which took in the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island as well as the Occupy Wall Street demonstration at Liberty Plaza.  As we moved from a beacon of hope, through the reality of the immigration processing, to the protest camp of OWS there were questions raised about how a nation and society has developed and changed and yet the hopes and aspirations of the people are very much the same.

This will not be an essay on the rights and wrongs of the recent past, current situation, or the protest movement.  As someone who has worked for an investment bank, and subsequently in and around the City of London for nigh on 20 years I know that the issues and solutions are not as simple or straightforward as those put forward by either side of the debate.  It is more complex and subtle with far more of the general population bearing some degree of responsibility than most people would feel comfortable with.  However, we are where we are and this is an attempt to reflect on the situation from what I initially thought would be no more than a great day in NY with Lucy.  So, as Dylan Thomas famously wrote: “To begin at the beginning…”

The queue for the Liberty Island ferry is right by the Universal Soldier monument, think Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey, and this seems to me to be an eniterly fitting place to bring to mind the price that has been paid for defending Liberty in the 20th Century and beyond.

The ferry ride went without incident, which is pretty remarkable given Lucy’s history with boats, and we were soon deposited on the landing dock of Liberty Island.  As you come off the dock and turn right the statue is screened by trees so you can only see at first the raised arm and torch and then part of her body emerging from the tree line.

Its only when you come round the corner that you are able to see the full extent of this massive monument and you begin to see why it has such a strong place in the iconography of democracy.  The casting is breathtakingly beautiful.  There is delicacy in the folds of the toga combined with power in the up thrust arm.  Surmounting the arm are the golden flames of the torch that shines the light of liberty out to sea and across to New York.  I make no apology for including a number of tourist type photographs of this magnificent graceful lady.  If I have managed to capture any part of her beauty in one of these images it will be worthwhile.

Liberty cast as a woman is an inspired work of genius.  A beacon to the world she welcomes you, but this is tempered by the tabula ansata (tablet of law) that she holds which instinctively brings to mind the image of the tablets containing the Ten Commandments.  You sense that you will not only be welcomed but also measured and held to account, as was the case for the many immigrants who passed by the Statue and were taken to Ellis Island.

After a while however your attention turns to the island itself and the view that its position it affords of lower Manhattan.  Whilst some native New Yorkers might disagree with me in my view this is probably one of the finest views of lower New York showing you some of the old and soon to be new icons of the Manhattan skyline (which by the way is the title of the single best song that the impossibly good looking Scandinavian 80’s band A-HA ever recorded, if you haven’t heard it before click on this link

A wider angle view presents New York City in its broader context.  We see bridges on the right connecting Manhattan to Brooklyn and on the left the upper reaches of Manhattan stretching away from the Empire State building.

Even at this close distance NY seems a somewhat remote and daunting prospect with a barricade of skyscrapers jutting proudly out to sea like a palisade of power.  This impression was further heightened by the closure of the jetty that faces Manhattan.  The “Do Not Enter” seems somewhat ironic given its position on Liberty Island pointing towards New York City.

I know this image has lots of flaws on it, I obviously need to clean my camera!  I could have cleaned these up in post processing but the more I looked at it the more I felt they actually added to the feeling of the image.

As we were leaving Liberty island to move on to Ellis Island we passed behind the Statue as it was silhouetted by the thinly veiled sun.  I know a basic tenet of photography is to never take a picture pointing directly into the sun but this like had such a striking cinema like quality to the image that I simply couldn’t ignore it.

Whilst we were waiting for the ferry to take us on to Ellis Island I found myself in teh company of a number of seagulls and took this picture especially for my friend Amy Medina who has a fantastic photographic blog at which you positively must check out, if only for the photos of seagulls.

And so we took the short ride across to Ellis Island, a place where hopes and dreams were made and broken.  Where families were reunited or torn apart and where new lives began and old one’s died.

I’ll say right now that I hardly took any photos whilst we were there.  I was far too absorbed by learning about the history of this facility and the stories of the people who went through it to think about trying capture it’s spirit in photographic form.  That said I did take pictures in the Registry Room as I was frankly so surprised by the grandeur  and lofty airiness of what is after all an immigration centre.  As in many countries around the world civic architecture in the USA was so much better at the turn of the 20th century than many of the buildings built in the more recent past.

My first and surprise was to learn that only those passengers travelling in third class were processed on Ellis Island.  Those travelling in first and second class were processed in New York, so it was only “your poor, your huddled masses” that went through Ellis Island. As I had in my ignorance thought that all immigrants passed through the these facilities and were processed at the same time this did change my initial preconception about the equality of treatment of immigrants to the USA.  However my second, and greatest surprise, was to learn that only 2% of those who passed through Ellis island were turned away. Given the language difficulties and the vast numbers that were processed, with over 1 million being handled in 1907 alone, this was quite frankly stunning and it showed that whatever segregation by economic means that may have taken place the USA truly did open its golden door.

I had intended to publish this as one post on the blog but as its already quite long I’m going to split it into two parts.  If you’re still with me and crying out for part two and not a member of my family then first of all thank you for sticking with it, and do not despair part two will be up in a couple of days.