Tag Archives: immigrants

It seems they wouldn’t know a sycamore

from a sasquatch.

Peoples’ lack of knowledge about tree species comes as something of a surprise as I begin to lead tours at Ellis Island. It has dozens of mature sycamores lining a landscaped lawn just in front of the main immigration building, as well as elsewhere in the complex of 29 buildings.

Pose the question, Do you know what tree this is, and everyone draws a blank. That provides a good opportunity for me to natter on about the cream-and-brown camouflage bark, how these amazing trees grow, how impervious they are to difficult natural conditions, how old they can get. Five hundred years, I have read, though I doubt it. These are somewhere under a century old.

Elegant, substantial, even hearty. Yes, some have seen better days. Some have been cared for better than others.

There are always surprises on Ellis.

Bagpipers assembled today to celebrate Scottish-American Heritage Month.

It created a nice musical accompaniment to the opening of my tour, in which I introduce myself as a proud product of Ellis Island, having a grandfather who came to America as a child in 1900, fresh off a Polish shtetl, with nothing but five dollars in his hand. The sight of the Statue of Liberty out a hospital window would have been a surprise, even a revelation to him.

Sycamores are often called plane trees – they belong to the genus Platanus, an ancient kind of flowering tree with fossils confirming it to be at least 100 million years old. The American sycamore is Platanus occidentalis, but there are other recognizable versions, including the London plane tree that clots the sidewalks of its namesake city, yes, but also New York City. Somewhat confusingly, the London plane is a hybrid, Platanus x acerfolia, a cross between Platanus occidentalis and Platanus orientalis. I’ve heard it said that the two species sort of randomly commingled in the back yard of a London botanist some time in a previous century, but that would appear to be myth. Somebody, surely, intentionally crossed the two kinds — maybe Dickens? He knew everything about everything.

Another Ellis surprise – to me – came when I asked the guard at her post on the New Jersey end of the 400-yard back door bridge to the Island how she liked her view of the daffodils in front of her window.

Oh, is that what you call them? she asked in perfect English. I didn’t know! I texted my friend to say what’s with these crazy yellow flowers? She said to send her a pic.

Yes, they are daffodils, blooming in profusion everyplace In Liberty State Park, along the Turnpike, in our Westchester yards. Everywhere. Daffodils. New life.

The London plane tree was planted throughout London during the Industrial Revolution and it proved to be astonishingly good at thriving in the soot and smoke.

Some have called the sycamore the buttonwood tree, a name deriving from the seed balls that bounce from its branches. The terms of the New York stock exchange were hammered out in the shade of a buttonwood tree down on Wall Street in 1792. Yes, totally true story. Okay.

More current, and definitely more accurate, the trees in front of the immigration station were designated Ellis Island Sycamores in 1987 in honor of the Bicentennial of the United States constitution. At that time, the ruined, abandoned historic facility had been taken in hand, cleared of trees, poison ivy and squatters. The Guastavino ceiling tiles had been polished, buffed and restored. The landmark was about ready to receive its hundreds upon hundreds of tourists and ancestry-seekers. Welcome! Now, we care for our trees.

I have not yet established when these particular sycamores took root here. But they lend a calm and stolid presence to the many people bustling by in the quest for their own roots. The sycamores and the daffodils. Let us name them.

5 Comments

Filed under Jean Zimmerman

The ghosts of immigrants past

congregate volubly at Ellis Island for those who would pay attention.

Some fortunate people enter through a back door bridge from Liberty State Park in New Jersey rather than the tried and true ferry.

If you insist on visiting the Statue of Liberty, fine. I’ve seen her enough and I’ll probably never scale the heights to the torch, even if it reopens. At Ellis Island there’s a nifty view of the Lady of the Harbor’s back.

But there’s a lot I find more thrilling. It’s good to stoke up with a humous and kale sandwich in a café thronged with high school students. Check out the ho-hum view out an ordinary window. Just the Freedom Tower, up close and personal.

But nothing at Ellis Island is ho-hum for long. The high-ceilinged, well-refurbished, shiny Great Hall offers a view of how some of our ancestors arrived in America. One in four of us, in fact, have some tie to an immigrant who arrived here on Ellis.

If you take the Hard Hat Tour on the unrestored south side of the island, be prepared for a different view.

And this is why I love it. You can feel the presence of the past. The walls breathe magic.

There are 29 structures on the south side that have long since fallen into ruin, and lucky visitors get to go behind the scenes and see it all. The fantastic organization Save Ellis Island raises funds to restore the complex, and there is a long way to go. In the meantime, being there means immersion in a fever dream.

These were all hospital buildings, constructed in the most up-to-date manner, with proper ventilation.

Our guide points overhead to where the nurses lodged, in a bunk room we are not now permitted to enter because of its fragile state.

It was a mandate that all nurses be single. There were four female doctors on the premises as well. But the story becomes largely about nurses and the children they cared for, in addition to the treatment of contagious and infectious diseases, the problems that detained so many immigrants here until they could be released into the general population.

We are introduced to a nurses’s station, long disappeared.

Then and now. A sick ward—can you imagine it?

Here is a visual aid.

A French artist named JR created blown-up images from photos taken at Ellis in its heyday, then wheat-pasted installations throughout.

This was the era’s version of a psych ward. Spooky.

American sycamores across the site received the designation “Ellis Island Sycamores” in 1987 to honor the Bicentennial of the U.S. constitution, and their seeds are now being propagated. It’s said some of these trees get to be 500 years old. The name is derived from the Greek sukomoros, a type of fig native to the Mediterranean. The leaves of the sycamore resemble fig leaves.

Here on the south side of the island, the practices of arboriculture need a bit of attention. Pruning shears, anyone?

I would like to offer my attention. And in fact I plan to spend much more time among the ghosts of Ellis Island as an Educator, leading these Hard Hat Tours. I can’t wait.

4 Comments

Filed under Jean Zimmerman