Monday, May 20, 2013

Ellis Island - Baggage and Dormitory Building

View of one of the many dorm areas which comprise the bulk of the Baggage and Dormitory building; during its peak, this area would have held as many beds as could possibly fit into the space.

"The Island of Tears" is a moniker often associated with Ellis Island, the nation's busiest immigration station during its years of operation (1892-1954), and easily its most famous.  This name - which refers to those turned away from America for deportation to their countries of origin - seems most closely connected in the public consciousness with the 2% of immigrants deported for medical reasons.  Certainly, the notion of a child separated from their family due to the discovery of trachoma behind the eyelid and sent, alone, back to whence they came is horrifying.  But disease was not the only reason for denial to passage through the "golden door" that Emma Lazarus wrote about.  A variety of other factors - ranging from poverty to belonging to an "undesirable" ethnic or religious group to suspicion of radical political leaning - could lead to detention or deportation.  The Baggage and Dormitory building, located on the North side of the island, was the epicenter of detention for non-medical cases for almost half a century.  Stabilized and boarded off in 2011, here's a look at the building before it "went dark".

Like much of the Baggage and Dormitory Building, the staircases favored functionality over ornament.

Ellis Island Immigration Station opened in 1892, a replacement for the Castle Garden Immigration Station at the southern tip of Manhattan.  The original main reception building, constructed of wood, burned down in 1897; the iconic Beaux Arts building that would replace it opened in 1900.  It quickly became apparent that, in addition to the hospital complex that was beginning to rise up on the artificial islands constructed south of the original island, space was needed for non-medical detentions as well.  The Main Building simply couldn't accommodate the number of detainees that were landing every day on the island.  Under Commissioner Robert Watchorn, such a building was constructed, attached to the kitchen and laundry building in back of the Main Building, and opening in 1909.

This new building was much simpler, architecturally speaking, than most of the other buildings on Ellis Island; this spoke both to the haste with which it was put up and to the intended future use of the building.  While the principal use of the building would be the detention of suspected undesirables until a board could convene to decide whether to deport them, a secondary use - at least for the first few years of the building's operation - was the storage of immigrants' luggage while they went through the admissions lines.  Thus, the new structure was given the name "Baggage and Dormitory Building", although it could well have been given a title truer to its actual purpose: "Detention Center".

A tiny bathtub was retrofitted into one of the bathrooms in the building.  In order to attach the water lines at the height at which they came out of the wall - where presumably a full-sized tub had once stood - a wooden base had to be constructed under the tub.  In over half a century of abandonment, this base rotted away.

The communal bathroom areas would allow a single official to oversee goings-on while detainees washed up en masse.

The bathing area had partitions between the bathtubs, but no curtains to shield the detainees from the watchful eyes of the Island's officials - there was no true privacy in the Baggage and Dormitory Building.

A closeup of another tub, ravaged over 50 years of abandonment and the attendant water damage.

Of course, the immigrants processed at Ellis Island were not from the upper classes of the societies from which they emigrated; First-class and Second-class passengers disembarked in Manhattan proper, and allowed into the country unhindered.  The Island primarily served steerage-class passengers, who generally packed all they could carry into a couple of suitcases - food included for the month-plus journey, as they were not served meals on the ships for which they often paid most everything they owned for passage - and suffered in cramped communal quarters below deck.

Upon arrival, the procedure for processing immigrants varied somewhat over time, but generally followed this pattern: after standing in a long line, sometimes for many hours on a busy day, each immigrant was given a quick medical examination.  They were asked a battery of questions, and from there - in most cases - they were entered into the registry and allowed to meet those waiting for them at the "kissing post" - the part of the island that gave it the other moniker by which it was known, "The Island of Hope".  From there, they would board a ferry and enter their new lives in America.

But just as the medical examination was meant to discern those who might be carrying disease into the New Land, the battery of questions was aimed at discerning whether an immigrant might be undesirable for other reasons.  Just like the various diseases which gained greater or lesser prominence over the years, various causes for detention asserted themselves at different times during the island's heyday from 1892-1924.  One constant cause for concern was poverty - among the questions asked of prospective immigrants were the amount of money they carried, whether or not they had arranged to stay with family or had other lodging arranged, and whether they were skilled in a trade.  Unskilled laborers without a place to stay or money to get started were perceived as likely to wind up on the dole, living in almshouses, and generally a burden on the public.  Many were detained and eventually deported for this reason.

Most salvageable artifacts had been removed from the Baggage and Dormitory building, as seen in this view of another dormitory section of the building.

On the first floor - briefly used to store immigrants' baggage while they waited in the lines for admission and registration - a number of remaining artifacts were collected.  One was an incredibly heavy Diebold safe.  (It would not open.)

Radiators were collected on one half of this dormitory; air ducts on the other.

Perhaps there was some merit to suggestions that the indigent, likely to become a burden on society, ought to be sent back; arguments of this sort are still in play in contemporary discussions of immigration policy.  But some of the other grounds for detention and deportation certainly seem more sinister in nature - as early as the first few years of the operation of the Immigration Station, various ethnic or religious groups were singled out, as were those with undesirable political leanings.  In the first decade of the 20th century, a memo circulated at the facility mentioned finding reason to detain "Jews, Slavs, Italians, and Socialists".

At various times, other ethnic groups and political ideologies were targeted: Irish and "Oriental"; Radical and Anarchist.  Of course, as New York City already had large populations of Jewish, Irish, and Italian immigrants, it would have been unpopular to codify the discrimination into policy.  Instead, officials working at the island would selectively over-enforce some of the admissions criteria.  A person who might pass through the line as a sane Protestant might be detained as an insane Jew.  A minor past criminal offense might not be troubling in a Spaniard, but might be cause for concern in an Italian.

Thousands of prospective immigrants were detained in the Baggage and Dormitory Building between 1909 and 1924, when the Immigration Act of 1924 placed extensive restrictions on immigration.  The "Golden Door" slammed shut, and the entire island took on what had previously been the function of the Baggage and Dormitory Building: detention and deportation.  Now, this building was only one of many that could be used to house undesirables in preparation for shipping them back to their countries of origin.  Immigration to the United States of America was now severely limited among class and ethnic lines.

View of another of this building's many communal dormitory areas.

In addition to the large dormitories, there was a corridor of individual rooms that could each accommodate two detainees.

The interior of one of these rooms, with "clean" mattresses left rolled and ready for the next time the room would be used - a day that never came.

Mattresses were sterilized in bulk in giant autoclaves in a room on the third floor of the building.

The final residential use of the Baggage and Dormitory building is perhaps its darkest.  On December 8, 1941 - the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor - the first group of German, Italian, and Japanese who were American citizens or legal aliens were rounded up and brought to this building.  Ellis Island was to become an internment camp as well as a detention facility for the usual suspects.  When the Baggage and Dormitory building was full to capacity with people who had committed no crime but to belong to a particular ethnic group, the internment camp spread out to much of the rest of the island, including the former hospital complex.

While the history of the internment of Japanese Americans is a well-known tale, and the subject of numerous apologetic gestures by the United States government towards those sent to the camps, it is not as well known that Germans and Italians suffered similar fate.  Across the United States, over 10,000 German Americans and 3,000 Italian Americans were interned.  Many of these came through Ellis Island, which served as a sort of waystation for processing those under internment and relocating them to the various camps scattered throughout the nation.  Approximately 600-800 "enemy aliens" would pass through Ellis Island per month during the height of its use as an internment camp; most would be sent to other facilities, but some remained on the island for years.  Because of the ethnic makeup of New York City, most of these were of German or Italian descent.

After the war ended, "enemy aliens" were released from the interment camp, and although the European conflict had ended a year earlier, it was only then that the Italian and German detainees were freed.  Internment remained a contentious and polarizing issue for many years; finally, in 1980, President Jimmy Carter created the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians - specifically to study the issue as it pertained to Japanese Americans.  Beginning in 1990 under the supervision of the George H. W. Bush administration, payments and official apologies were made to surviving Japanese Americans interned in the United States.  To this day, there has been no official recognition of the internment of European Americans labeled as "enemy aliens", and no similar offer of compensation.

A rotting pile of mattresses sat in a corner of the Baggage and Dormitory Building from the time of its vacancy until 2011, when the building was cleaned out, stabilized, and boarded off.

After its use as an internment camp, the Baggage and Dormitory building was left largely vacant, although it was still maintained until the island closed for good in 1954 and was completely abandoned.  Even as the nearby Main Building was completely renovated to the tune of $150 million, and the Hospital Complex was stabilized and cleaned up some years later, the detention building of Ellis Island remained untouched, slowly taking on more and more water damage, until 2011, when it was stabilized, cleaned out, and boarded off.  Perhaps there is a reason for this; while the Main Building saw 98% of prospective immigrants pass into America and thus represents hope, and while the Hospital Complex saw many prospective immigrants convalesce to the point that they were able to enter and thus represents healing, the Baggage and Dormitory Building has no such positive context.  It was, always, a building first and foremost for detention.

And perhaps, when more funds are secured, it too should be reopened as part of the Ellis Island National Monument.  Classism, racism, and anti-semitism are a part of the American story just as much as the "melting pot" concept we learned a glossy version of in Social Studies classrooms.  Internment was a reality of our national conduct during the Second World War.  These aren't happy stories, but they are fundamentally American stories, and they deserve to be told.  The Baggage and Dormitory Building at Ellis Island would be a wonderful place for the telling of these tales.