There are quite a few things to do for those who are fond of abandoned structures in New York City. You can pass by the Smallpox Memorial Hospital on Roosevelt Island, or peek into the windows of the deserted army barracks on Governors Island. Otherwise, you can descend into the subway to see the neglected splendor of the Chambers Street J/Z station.
However, the abandoned hospital complex on Ellis Island is incomparable to all. Here you can have a completely legal opportunity to walk around the historical facilities that have fallen into disuse and remain (aside from asbestos and lead paint removal) untouched.
Ellis Island is not far: just like Staten Island, you can see it from everywhere on Manhattan’s Hudson shore. And just like Staten Island, New Yorkers often ignore it and never visit.
To make it to the hospital facilities you have to book a hard hat tour, a joint venture between the Save Ellis Island Foundation and the Department of Parks & Recreation. Then you need to get on the ferry that departs from Castle Clinton (or Jersey City, if you’re coming from the Garden State). It’s the same ferry with four stops that tourists use to get to the Statue of Liberty. Because of the stops and an airport-style post-9/11 security, you have to get to the ferry station on Manhattan at 10:30 AM to make it in time for the tour that starts at 1:30 PM.
There are a couple different tours of the abandoned hospital. But this is the review of the Untapped cities tour of the hospital facilities along with the works of French artist JR. JR is famous for his oversize black-and-white photographs that he pasted to objects all over the world, often to make a bold political statement (i.e., portraits of Arab and Israeli taxi drivers plastered on the West Bank Barrier Wall ). When the tours of the unrestored parts of the island were first announced in 2014, JR approached the people in charge with an art project. He would make blown-up replicas of photographs made on Ellis Island when it functioned as an immigration facility, and paste them everywhere in the structure. Parks and Recreation granted him the access, allowing JR to bring the island’s illustrious history back to life through the lens of art.
Between the years 1892 (when it was opened as the processing point for immigrants arriving by ship) until 1954 (when the immigration services abandoned it), Ellis Island received about 15 million people. Over the period of its busiest years, the tiny island that one can cross all over in just 10 minutes, took in as much as 1 million people.
It’s a little-known fact that Ellis Island served the ship passengers of the lowest, third class solely. Once they had been unloaded, the 1st and 2nd class passengers were quite formally checked in their cabins and allowed to descent onto the docks of Manhattan. Aware of the rules, even the poor tried the hardest to acquire tickets of the 1st or 2nd class because it practically guaranteed a hassle-free arrival to the US and a seamless beginning of a new life.
If you take a look at Ellis Island on the map, you may see that it seemingly consists of three parts, each an enclave of buildings. Two of these three sectors, where the abandoned hospital stands, are not original parts of the island, but landfill made with the ground excavated during the construction of Lexington Avenue transit (today’s 4-5-6 trains).
The main building of the island, where the museum is currently open to the public, contained most of the facilities that related to one’s immigration. The luckiest of immigrants, who made it through the bureaucratic hurdles in just about four hours, as well as those who were detained for further checkups, or placed for overnight stays, all remained in this building. This meant only those who were deemed healthy in the medical evaluation part of the process—roughly 98 percent of arrivals. Those who were considered unwell, both physically and mentally, were transported to the hospital, which had wards for general patients, infectious quarantine wards, as well as psychiatric facilities.
You might wonder about the high percentage of those who made it through the check-ups. Because the shipping companies became responsible for the lodgings and food of all passengers who were not allowed to pass to NYC immediately, they made sure to carry out extensive check-ups during boarding. Of course, some ailing passengers still made it to the ships and then, to Ellis Island, and for each such omission the shipping company was also fined $100. Quite an incentive to ensure that pre-boarding check-ups were top-notch.
Infectious diseases, like tuberculosis, were the most foolproof way to land in the hospital. However, other afflictions that the medical staff of Ellis Island was especially wary of included bad eyesight, odd behavior, and all kinds of traceable parasites, like ringworm. People of very advanced age and single pregnant women were also suspect, as the authorities were trying hardest to make sure that no one, who could potentially become a ward of the state, made it to the US.
The time that one would spend in the hospital wards depended on the reason. Some were released shortly if more precise tests proved their full health. Pregnant women were kept in comfort and given English lessons, to be released after giving birth, with American citizenship granted to both mother and child. Those who were deemed psychiatrically unwell could not be sent back overseas or released freely into the US. So they stayed in the facilities indefinitely until space became available in a mental asylum somewhere nearby, most often in New Jersey.
The history of Ellis Island is the history of the USA as we know it today. And it’s fascinating, especially when compared to that of migration in the contemporary moment. Anachronistic in some aspects, more humane in others, it is nonetheless a compelling history of loss and opportunity, grief and hope, and incredible courage. And the experience of reliving it in the abandoned hospital facility is only made more
vivid by JR’s photographs.
As the guide describes the events unfolding in the photographs that JR and his assistants fixed everywhere on the hospital grounds—some precisely where the photo was taken, some haphazardly—it’s hard not to feel transported back in time. When psychiatric ward patients looked at the land of the free over the river but would never make it there. When it was possible to live out the remainder of one’s life in the harrowing atmosphere of state-run asylums.
When people waited, patiently, to learn of their migratory fate in the crowded halls of the main building. Full families, or people with marks of specific ailments applied with chalk to their coats—you never know if they made it to Manhattan, or not, and that makes it more poignant. When some slept on the uncomfortable government bunks beds, some made it off the ships gingerly, and all had hearts full of hope for a new life.
While the regular hard hat tours of the facilities are abundant, the next JR tour will take place on 11th of August and will not repeat this summer, at least, according to the Untapped Cities calendar. Perhaps you can make it?
Disclaimer: We have no affiliation with Untapped Cities, and this is an honest review and not an advertising material. However, all the proceeds from the tours go to the renovation funds for the abandoned hospital—one more reason to buy a ticket.