Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Welcome to New Jersey

I've been volunteering as a tour guide at Ellis Island for a couple of months now, and it's been a real boon to my general sense of adventure and thirst for arcane knowledge.

Being a Jersey booster, one of my favorite parts of the tour is when I get to welcome people to the Garden State. Huh, you say? I thought Ellis Island was in New York. Well, yes and no. Here's the deal:

Both Ellis Island and Liberty Island are on the New Jersey side of the state boundary that tracks down the Hudson River and through New York Harbor. Way back in 1834, the states entered into a compact that put the islands under New York jurisdiction, and both states agreed that the surrounding waters were New Jersey territory. Eventually, the islands were bought by the US government to build forts and, ultimately, the Statue of Liberty and the immigration station.

Over the years, as immigration boomed and more space was needed for medical facilities to handle thousands of sick newcomers, the US government enlarged Ellis Island and built more than 30 buildings there. What was once about 5 acres became well over 20, consisting of fill taken from Manhattan and Brooklyn during the excavation of the New York City subway system.

Not much was said about Ellis Island's provenance until the immigration station was restored and opened as a museum in 1990. In stark contrast, the many buildings on the island's south side remained in disarray, and questions came up about what would come of them. Would they be torn down in favor of new construction, perhaps a shiny new hotel or casino? Given that the island is just a half mile from Jersey City, the state of New Jersey wanted a strong voice in any decision about the island's future. And certainly, monetary issues came into play, too. As it stood, visitors paid New York sales tax on anything they bought at the souvenir stands and snack bars on Ellis and Liberty Islands. Who would get the tax revenue from any additional profit making enterprises on the island?

The issue was settled in the time honored American tradition: a law suit that reached the US Supreme Court. In their infinite wisdom, the Justices looked back to the 1834 compact for guidance. Noting that the states had agreed that the naturally-occurring islands were New York land in New Jersey territory, they carefully drew the state boundary to include the original land within the larger, man-made landmass we know today. While the vast majority of the immigration museum rests within the footprint of the original island, tiny bits rest within New Jersey. And more than 80 percent of the total island, including the entire south side hospital complex, is part of the Garden State.

It's pretty ironic from the perspective of logic:
  • The original island, which one would reason is in New Jersey since it's west of the state border, is actually part of New York.
  • The "new" part of the island, constructed of soil and rock from New York City, is actually part of New Jersey.
And the status of the south side buildings? The non-profit Save Ellis Island is working with the National Park Service to raise funds for restoration of the hospital complex, with an eye toward opening an institute on world migration and health. All of the buildings are stabilized to prevent further decay, and one, the Ferry Building, is already open for guided tours. They're expecting that a second building, the hospital laundry, will be restored and open later this year for visitation.