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“I feel very singular in this situation,” he said. “There are a lot of New York City tour guides and a lot of them have their specialties —Wall Street, Central Park. I’m the only one who really hung his career hat at Ellis Island. One would have thought that one of the major attractions in the U.S. would be a pretty safe place to build a career, but it ain’t. I feel like I’m an actor whose show just got cancelled.”
Vincent J. Cannato, author of the book, “American Passage: The History of Ellis Island,” said an extended delay in re-opening Ellis Island would be a big blow for visitors to New York. “It’s a major tourist attraction,” he said. “A few million people a year come to visit, and people want to come and see where their ancestors first landed in America.”
The island’s closure will also delay renovation projects on the south side of the island. Cannato said more than a dozen buildings in that area are “not in great condition” and “haven’t been open to the public for ages.”
Ellis Island first opened its doors in 1892 as the nation’s prime entry point for immigrants, who were arriving then in the millions, mostly via steerage. Its doors as an entry center closed in 1954, by which time immigrants arrived in the U.S. by plane. The island’s buildings were abandoned for 30 years after that, during which time they fell victim to vandalism and the elements.
The renovation of the main building began in 1984 and, after some $162 million in expenditures, culminated with its reopening as an immigration museum in 1990.
Cannato said that Ellis Island’s south side buildings, which remained unrestored, “hold slightly different significance.”
“Many were medical facilities, hospitals, quarantined wards, seen by far fewer immigrants,” he said, calling them sites of “both miracles and tragedy.