There is something in the New York air that makes sleep useless.
– Simone de Beauvoir, French author and philosopher
When I was a child, we took trips to Los Angeles, where many of our relatives still lived after we moved to Terra Bella. A bunch of our families went to Morro Bay and Cayucos in the summertime for a few years; we kids swim or played in the cold water and watched as our parents fished. I spent a summer in the Philippines when I was ten years old – right before Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law. But outside of that, we didn’t have traditional family summer vacations.
As a parent, I look at family summer vacations as opening up the world for my two kids. Since I’m an urban lover, we focused on exposing them to major cities in the United States – San Diego, Los Angeles, Seattle, Las Vegas, Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia. Since I was going to be attending the FANHS 2016 Biennial Conference in New York in June, we decided to tack on a family vacation before my conference. I’m a little late in posting about this vacation. Usually, as many of you know, I’m up late the night of each vacation day, tapping away at the laptop to capture my memories and all the details, to keep everything fresh, mostly for my kids’ sake. But there wasn’t time during our trip, so August is a good time to reflect on this family vacation.
I’ve been to New York on business a number of times, and David joined me for one trip. We didn’t go to some of the obvious points of interest because we knew at some point we would take the kids. Let’s just say that we packed it all in this family summer vacation. One thing we did was purchase the City Passes, which was a great deal because we used every pass in the book, which is something we also did when we were in Chicago.
Airbnb in Little Italy
We stayed at our first Airbnb apartment on Mulberry Street right in the middle of Little Italy, which was a great location to catch many subway lines and to walk around in the evenings. When you walk out of our apartment building, you basically step out into Little Italy. The streets are blocked off to traffic on the weekends, big Little Italy signs flashed overhead, tourists walked up and down the street, and aggressive maître d’s tried to lure us to dine at their establishment. This scene reminded me of North Beach in San Francisco.
We were on the 7th floor, and we had a nice view of the Empire State Building. There were eight floors with four units on each floor. Our little apartment comprised one small bedroom, a closet-sized bedroom, bathroom, and a kitchen/living space, which was just right for us. The only thing about being on the 7th floor – without an elevator – is that at the end of the day, when you’re an exhausted tourist, you have seven flights of steps to your bed and sofa. If we had Fitbits, we surely would have logged thousands of steps each day. That first evening, we ate at Café Habana (17 Prince Street, 212.625.2001), a Cuban restaurant several blocks down; we were advised by our Airbnb owner that you don’t want to eat in any of the touristy Little Italy restaurants. We enjoyed the Cuban sandwiches – fresh citrus marinated roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese, and pickles on hero bread with chipotle mayonnaise – while the kids had roast pork plate with yellow rice and black beans. On the way home, we found the local grocery store so we could stock up on breakfast food and bottled water. I’m surprised that they don’t have a plastic bag ban in the City, especially since people shop more often during the week because there isn’t a lot of storage in people’s homes and most take public transportation to and from the grocery stores. That’s a lot of plastic bags. At any rate, we truly experienced the Airbnb marketing slogan: “Experience a place like you live there.” And so we did.
‘Liberty Enlightening the World’
The next day, we headed to the ferry at Battery Park in Manhattan to catch the boat to the Statue of Liberty. The beauty about going on vacation soon after school lets out is that it’s not too hot yet and many schools elsewhere haven’t been let out yet. As a result, neither the ferries nor the destination points were crowded. It was great to see in person such a famous statue and symbol that we’ve grown up knowing all our lives. We have tons of photos of Lady Liberty from all angles across the bay, Liberty Island, and the observation level (we didn’t have crown access). What was most interesting was walking through the museum and learning so many interesting things such as the face of Lady Liberty belonged to the sculptor Auguste Bartholdi’s mom and Gustave Eiffel designed the statue’s internal framework. At the time, 1886, the Statue of Liberty – atop its pedestal – was the tallest structure in New York City and the tallest statue in the world.
In 1865, a group of French intellectuals led by Edouard de Laboulaye, who were protesting political representation in their country, decided to honor the ideals of freedom and liberty with a symbolic gift to the United States, who was looking toward its centennial. Given the hot topic of immigration in our country these days, it was important for the kids to see what the Statue of Liberty meant at the time. While the country was grappling with massive immigration in the late 1800s, it was responding with a growing number of restrictive immigration laws. In 1883 young writer Emma Lazarus wrote a poem for the statue’s pedestal fundraiser called “The New Colossus,” after the Colossus of Rhodes, which was an ancient statue that became Bartholdi’s inspiration. In 1903, the poem was inscribed on a bronze plaque on the pedestal, which really remains true today as it was back then:
The New Colossus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breath free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
I asked the kids what they remembered most about their trip to Liberty Island. Jacob remarked that he didn’t realize how it was built – that the hammered copper pieces were riveted into place on the internal cast iron and steel framework. He says he isn’t interesting in studying engineering, but he certainly has a mind for it. Isabella, on the other hand, touched on an ironic fact that I was excited that she noted. It stood out for me, too. At the 1886 dedication, women were not allowed to participate in the unveiling or the parade. Imagine that! However, an enterprising and determined group of women took several boats out to Hudson Bay to celebrate. Good on them!
Ellis Island: first step to America
We hopped on the ferry to our next destination – Ellis Island, a place I was really looking forward to seeing. The Ellis Island Immigration Museum is big – I’m sure we didn’t see every little room. Stepping into the Registry Room, or the Great Hall, you get a sense of what it must have been like being an immigrant coming off of the ship and being herded into this enormous room, hoping that you’ll be able to walk out and onward to New York City. The island was named after its owner Samuel Ellis, who purchased the land in 1774. The federal government purchased the island for harbor defense in 1808 and built Fort Gibson in 1811. Between 1855 and 1890, individual states processed immigrants. Castle Garden, which is now Castle Clinton National Monument, served as the immigration station for New York State.
In 1900 the current Main Building opened. From 1901 through 1910, some 8.8 million immigrants arrived in the United States, with 6 million being processed at Ellis Island alone. A record 11,747 immigrants arrived there on April 17, 1907. When WWI broke out, immigration was curbed and enemy aliens were detained at Ellis from 1914 to 1918. In the 1920s, federal laws set immigration quotas based on national origin. When WWII broke out, German, Italian, and Japanese aliens were interned at Ellis Island. In 1954, the Ellis Island immigration station closed permanently. In 1965, national quotas were abolished and Ellis Island became part of the Statue of Liberty Monument. The buildings sat deserted and in a state of decay, but restoration began in the 1980s and the Main Building opened as an immigration museum in 1990.
A total of some 12 million people came through Ellis Island. In the Registry Room, inspectors grilled immigrants with up to 31 questions. They had to give their name, hometown, occupation, destination, and amount of money they carried. One “trick” question asked was whether the immigrant had a job lined up already. You would think that the answer would be yes, but that isn’t what the inspectors wanted to hear because it meant that the immigrant was taking away a citizen’s job. While a third of those who “passed” stayed in New York City, the rest headed to other destinations. Those who were deemed mentally unfit were marked by chalk with an X on their lapel, which meant that they were going to have a difficult time getting through. While 20 percent were held back for further medical or legal examination, according to our guide, only about two percent were denied entry. One such denial was recorded by the granddaughter who retold the story in an audio file. Everyone in her family was let in, but her grandmother was sent back to Russia. The family never saw her again. That story haunts me still. And the granddaughter, now an elderly woman, wept with the retelling.
9/11 Memorial Museum: ‘a place of solemn reflection’
Who knew that we still had plenty of time left when we docked at the ferry station at Battery Park? With the new World Trade Center building rising in the sky before us, we decided to take in the 9/11 Memorial Museum. My sister Heidi and I saw the 9/11 Memorial in September 2012, when the museum was in a tiny space and we had to wait in a long line to walk through the small building that housed the artifacts from the attacks. At the Memorial Plaza, David and the kids took in twin waterfall memorials somberly and in silence. It’s quite a scene to behold, and all you want to do is stare into the bottom of the memorial and still not quite imagine what happened here. The first time I came to New York in 2008, I couldn’t help staring at the enormous crater as my Super Shuttle van zoomed by. Yes, that’s Ground Zero, my driver told me. Still a gaping hole.
The 9/11 Memorial Museum is an impressive, cavernous building, which is unique looking on the outside with all that shiny steel glinting in the June sun. It houses 110,000 square feet of exhibition space and is located within and surrounded by remnants of the original World Trade Center site. When you first walk into the entry of the Pavilion, you are in the atrium, which allows for a view of the South and the North memorial pools. The Foundation Hall, which is the largest space within the museum topping 60 feet at its highest point, contains remnants, including the slurry wall and the iconic Last Column.
September 11, 2001, is the main historical exhibition, which comprises “three parts that explore the day of 9/11, what led up to the attacks, and the immediate aftermath.” Tribute Walk is a long hallway or alleyway with multiple artistic expressions created in response to 9/11. Memorial Hall is situated between the Twin Tower footprints. The quote – No day shall erase you from the memory of time – from Book IX of The Aeneid by Virgil, the ancient Roman poet, is emblazoned across the wall. The letters of the quote were forged by New Mexico blacksmith Tom Joyce from steel recovered from the World Trade Center. Surrounding the quote is a beautiful art installation around it called “Trying to Remember the Color of the Sky on That September Morning” by reflecting artist Spencer Finch. Comprising 2,983 individual water-color drawings, the art installation captures a unique shade of blue representing all the victims of both the February 26, 1993, and September 11, 2001, victims.
Understanding that everything about this museum is moving, one of the most emotional exhibits is the Memorial Exhibition. Along several walls are portrait photographs of all the victims. Housed in the middle of these walls of faces is an inner darkened chamber where you can sit on the bench lining the wall of the room and listen quietly to shared stories – by turns heartbreaking, heartwarming, amusing, and somber. “In Memoriam,” is a “quiet, contemplative space that invites you to honor and to learn more about each person killed in the two attacks.” When a family member, friend, or former colleague spoke, a picture of their loved one was projected on the wall, with a short biography and story. I remembered one story in particular that struck me as tragic among the tragic – of a young man in his twenties who worked his way up from being a janitor at the World Trade Center to being a trader for one of the firms there. He left a wife and three young children. I couldn’t help thinking, if only he were still a janitor, he would have already done his job the night before and not been in the building that fateful morning.
The Museum opened on May 15, 2014. At the Museum’s one-year anniversary, the National 9/11 Flag, which is a tattered flag that was recovered from Ground Zero and, through the work of the nonprofit New York Says Thank You Foundation, subsequently restored via “stitching ceremonies” held across the U.S. was displayed. It is a heartfelt artistic endeavor that shows how united our various communities can be and how much love can be showered in a world darkened by fear and hate.
I was so glad we as a family got to experience the 9/11 Memorial Museum. It’s a loving tribute to all the victims, their family and friends, the responders and their families and friends, and the resilient city of New York. Isabella wasn’t even born and Jacob wasn’t quite fifteen months old at the time. David and I were glued to the television set, watching CNN 24/7, and worried that Jacob would never live to adulthood because all we heard about was the threat of bioterrorism being unleashed around the world. Nearly 15 years later, there’s more hope in the world, despite the ever-present roiling dark clouds. Still, Virgil’s words are alive in my head: “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.” Amen.