On Sunday, thanks to OHNY, I took a tour of the ruins on the south side of Ellis Island. It was a popular event, with five tours running on both days of the weekend--plenty of chances for New Yorkers to experience this important piece of history, and enjoy the thrill of accessing a rarely seen aspect of the hidden city.
That's the best part--stepping through private doors into a place few people go, into a no-man's land of contagious disease wards and psychiatric lock-ups.
the face of misery on a hospital building
There is something deeply satisfying about a modern ruin. The smallpox hospital on Roosevelt Island, the High Line before it was reclaimed, Admirals Row at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Maybe they bring to mind the oddly peaceful, unpeopled pleasures of the post-apocalypse.
Maybe it's their familiarity that attracts us to them. In the Staff House at Ellis Island, a building recently reclaimed from wild vines, we can imagine ourselves sitting by the fireplace...
...looking out at the view of the harbor and Statue of Liberty, listening to the ocean as it laps against the sea wall just feet from the back door. This isn't an ancient Roman ruin, far removed from our own experience. This is a room we might know.
It is not hard to imagine our nearest ancestors shuffling through the Isolation Ward, walking on a nurse's arm along the curving, U-shaped corridor. Today, vegetation pokes through the busted windows. Nature is ever-pressing, waiting for the humans to depart, waiting to take over again, creeping in through the cracks, tearing down the walls.
In haunted rooms, nature has eaten away the floors and sunk the ceilings. There used to be beds here, white sheets, vases filled with flowers. The air smelled of Listerine. This is not some distant Pompeii. In these ruins, we hover between possibilities--the known past, photographed and documented, and the foreseen future, easily imagined because it's already here.
Down a long corridor through the measles wards, we pass broken glass and twining vines, a pile of dead leaves sweeping in on the wind, and silence. No people to be seen. Only their rusted remains, their confused detritus.
A porcelain urinal leans against a tree. A mortuary seethes with bats. Oxygen and moisture devour the doors on cabinets that once held cadavers.
We know what life after the apocalypse will look like.
See all my photos of the Ellis Island hospital here
For more modern ruins, see: