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A Film From 1974 Offers a Rare Glimpse Inside an Abandoned Ellis Island

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A Film From 1974 Offers a Rare Glimpse Inside an Abandoned Ellis Island

May 28, 2024, 5:00 a.m. ET
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By Phil Buehler and Steve Siegel

Mr. Buehler is a photographer who has worked in urban-exploration photography for nearly five decades. Mr. Siegel is an artist who has been photographing and filming New York City’s streets, neighborhoods and people for over four decades.

Ellis Island in New York Harbor served as the principal point of entry for immigrants arriving in the United States from 1892 through 1924, and was used for detention and deportation until its closing in 1954. All in all, over 12 million immigrants passed through its halls. But by 1974, when we were students and made the short documentary above, it was in decay.

At that time, the buildings were abandoned and inaccessible to the public, and the famous ferry that shuttled immigrants from the island to Manhattan sank in a storm in 1968. To two teenagers from New Jersey, Ellis Island was a forbidden mystery that was tantalizingly close to shore, so we began venturing to the island in a tiny rowboat with a 16-millimeter camera. Knowing how many people had passed through the buildings gave them a certain power, and there were physical reminders of the past, as well — mattresses, dishes, paperwork and signs printed in several languages.

Back then, when we spoke to New York City area residents who passed through the island at a much earlier time in their lives, those moments on Ellis Island were seared into their memories. In the film, they vividly recalled the dizzying experience of arriving and of seeing New York City for the first time. Their brief stay on Ellis Island became the fulcrum — the literal pivot point — of their lives.

Today, revisiting our film about the historic role of Ellis Island raises profound questions about the country’s current immigration policies. Should the “Golden Door” (to use the poet Emma Lazarus’s famous words) be left open or slammed shut? The stories of those who long ago passed through Ellis Island may suggest an answer to this question. At the very least, the memories of these immigrants remind us that there always have been — and always will be — “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Phil Buehler is a Brooklyn-based photographer, installation artist, author and activist. Steve Siegel is a photographer, filmmaker and lawyer based in New Jersey.

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