Monday, October 12, 2009

Ellis Island Ruins

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.

Art-Deco eagles

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:


Unknown said...

Seems like the perfect slightly melancholy season for this visit; great copy and pictures.

I'm hoping that, as an 'outsider' New Yorker in Texas, that you've also linked this to Forgotten New York. This was almost as remote a journey as some Staten Island wood.

Jeremiah Moss said...

thanks. it is definitely spooky out there.

Melanie said...

Thanks for the photos of Ellis Island. I have never been there but one of my Grandfathers passed through there as a small child.

Alex in NYC said...

Striking shots, JM. Very nice work.

Daniel said...

Love this post. Just wrote a blog post about the old Elks lodge on Queens Boulevard. Reminds me of this.

Stan said...

Great pics! There was a documentary I saw recently on Ch 13 WNET a PBS station in NYC. It showed how the federal government ran socialzed medicine in this place.

~evilsugar25 said...

Am I the only one that feels this would make an amazing home? Those windows! That light! A fireplace!

walkerny said...

Why doesn't the government ever do the obvious and lease these sort of properties to those who can rehabilitate them as homes, apartments, businesses. What rich guy wouldn't want to commute daily to Wall street from there? So what if he is a rich guy, better to live, spend and pay taxes in NY than in Conn.! Only the government lets great property such as "Admiral's Row" in the Brooklyn Navy Yard or Governors Island to rot unused.