Putting on a Landfill

Head over to Front Porch Republic to read this great post by Susan McWilliams on the world’s most expensive golf course. It just happens to be located at Liberty State Park. Yes, that Liberty State Park. The same New Jersey park where some of you may have climbed into a boat and traveled to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.

Here is a snippet:

Liberty National Golf Course, for those who have not yet been asked to play there, is the most expensive golf course ever built. It opened in 2006, having cost an estimated $250 million to create, and is the centerpiece of the Liberty National Golf Club. Membership in the club is by invitation only, and those lucky few who are invited may join for the low, low “initiation fee” of $500,000. The course’s website reassures would-be members that the course is easy to reach … because there are five landing strips for private jets nearby.

Some have justified Liberty National’s existence by saying that if it hadn’t been built, the site “would still be a toxic waste dump rotting on the banks of the Hudson River.” Because, I guess, the only way to fix something broken is to sell it off to the highest bidder, who will then paint it pretty colors and tell other people that if they want to look at it, they have to pay half a million dollars.

(I’m not sure how much legitimate environmental cleanup went into the construction of Liberty National, although I am sure that golf courses themselves tend to be environmentally dubious propositions, albeit environmentally dubious propositions that are aesthetically pleasing.)

Indeed, people who have had occasion to visit Liberty National Golf Course report that it is very pretty. I’m sure it is, what with “the huddled masses” and “the tempest-tost” kept a safe distance away from the “state of the art heliport.” And isn’t that what America is all about?

Foner Sets the Record Straight on the 14th Amendment and Immigration

Writing for Bloomberg, Columbia University historian Eric Foner reminds us that the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution means that anyone born in the United States, “with minor exceptions,” is a citizen of the United States…even the children of illegal immigrants.

Foner provides some much needed historical perspective on this issue. Since I could not decide on a good excerpt for the blog, why not just read the entire piece.

Should Obama Follow Lincoln on Immigration?

Immigrant historian Alan Kraut thinks so.

Here is a taste from his piece at The Huffington Post:

Immigration? Lincoln? Yes, like President Obama, Lincoln lived in an era when immigration was a controversial matter. Between 1840 and 1860 approximately 4.5 million newcomers arrived, most of them from Ireland, the German states, and Scandinavian countries. Many more crossed back and forth across the border with Mexico, newly drawn in 1848. States, not the federal government were charged with counting, interrogating, and medically inspecting immigrants. Port procedures at state depots such as New York’s Castle Garden were haphazard at best. Millions of Catholics arrived striking fear in the hearts of American Protestants. Nativistic anti-Catholicism cropped up in a pulp literature featuring anti-papist stereotypes and undergirded the politics of the Know Nothing Party of the 1850s. While never serious contenders for national political power, there were Know Nothing governors, mayors, and congressmen who built their careers on opposing immigration.

When the Republican Party was formed in 1854, some Know Nothings drifted into the new party and wanted Republicans to adopt an anti-immigrant stand. Lincoln refused. In an 1855 letter to his Springfield friend Joshua Speed, Lincoln wrote, “I am not a Know Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can anyone who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people?. . .When the Know-Nothings get control, it [our Declaration of Independence] will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes and foreigners, and catholics[sic].’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty – Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy. . . .” In 1860, Lincoln ran on a platform that came out against “any change in our naturalization laws, or any state legislation by which the rights of citizens hitherto accorded to immigrants from foreign lands shall be abridged or impaired; and in favor of giving a full and efficient protection to the rights of all classes of citizens, whether native or naturalized, both at home and abroad.”

As we approach the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s presidency and the Civil War, America once again lives under the cloud of war and economic uncertainty. Workers in search of employment pour across our borders. Islamic immigrants strike fear in the hearts of some Christians. Though the federal government is charged with creating and enforcing immigration policy, private vigilante groups and now some states are trying to usurp that authority. As did Lincoln, President Obama must clearly articulate his position on immigration reform, substituting clear fresh vision for the blurry confusion of a contentious, befuddled Congress.

Democrats and Republicans agree that unauthorized immigrants now in the U.S. must not receive amnesty without paying a price. Some advocate fines, others suggest harsher measures. During the Civil War, Lincoln called on all Americans, including recently arrived immigrants, to serve their country. Perhaps a broader conception of national service is the answer in much the same way that many people convicted of non-violent crimes pay their debt to society in hours of community service. The tasks and time commitment for foreign-born engineers who have over-stayed their visas and those for manual laborers already working two jobs to support their families might differ, of course. Those immigrants who help a community clean up after a natural disaster or repair the swings in a playground pay a debt even as they are incorporated into communities they serve. All children need safe swings – natives and newcomers.

Whatever action Mr. Obama takes on immigration, it must honor Lincoln’s memory, reflect his fairness and decency, and embody his courage in time of crisis. Trading platitudes with the Arizona governor who signed a repressive legislation that feeds on anti-immigrant sentiment won’t do.

Ellis Island Reflections

This was the fourth time I had visited Ellis Island since it opened as a museum in 1990, but it was the first time I had brought a group of students with me. It was a long day of touring, but the students in my Immigrant America course (and a few others–including my family) were up to the task.

We left the friendly confines of Grantham, PA at 7:00am and placed ourselves under the care of Larry, our fearless coach bus driver. The students seemed to develop a connection with Larry as he regaled us over his microphone with stories of animal bridges on Route 78, live reports from Williams Grove Speedway where his son was racing sprint cars, and his experience as a sailor on the U.S.S. Intrepid.

We arrived at Battery Park around 10:30 and enjoyed our bagged lunches. (Thanks to Sarah and Abby for getting this all taken care of and for lugging the bag of ice packs around all day!). Around 11:15 we headed into the Clinton Castle, a War of 1812 fort on the tip of Manhattan, and then boarded our ferry.

It was a beautiful day in New York. The skies were clear. The views of the city were breathtaking. We spent about an hour on Liberty Island where students got their pictures taken in front of the Statue of Liberty. We learned about historical figures such as Frederic Bartholdi, the French sculptor who designed Lady Liberty; Gustave Eiffel, who designed the framework of the statue; and Joseph Pulitzer, the newspaper editor who was influential in raising funds for the construction of the pedestal/monument on which the statue stands.

Then it was off to Ellis Island, where we spent the bulk of our day. I am always moved when I visit Ellis Island. As I enter the Great Hall I always reflect on a the story my 99 year-old grandfather told me about arriving there as a young boy in 1913. Like so many immigrants, he passed through registration without incident and then was directed to the “Stairs of Separation” where he walked down the left set of stairs and met his father for the first time. (His father had arrived earlier to establish work and get settled). It was grandpa’s first memory of America.

As I stand in that hall I find myself reflecting on the courage it must have taken for my great-grandparents to leave everything behind and start a new life in the United States. It is this kind of everyday courage that is celebrated at Ellis Island. Frankly, I am not sure I could imagine doing that today, but, of course, the world was different in 1913. My sense of historical contingency was palpable.

Apart from the Great Hall, my favorite part of Ellis Island is the second-floor exhibits devoted to period of “peak immigration.” This section includes some phenomenal photos of eastern and southern European immigrants arriving to the Island around the turn of the twentieth-century.

Most of us watched a 30-minute documentary about Ellis Island, but few of us were expecting the movie to be preceded by a 20-minute lecture by a park ranger on the history of “open immigration” in America. The theater was incredibly hot and I must admit that I fell asleep for about half of the movie. (My wife and daughters insist that it was very good–I am sure it was). I think our time could have been used a bit better. If I had to do it again I would have skipped the movie and had the students join-up with one of the official ranger tours.

In general, the museum is filled with primary sources from the period. If one had the time or the energy she could spend days there. There is so much to see and study. One of the highlights for my daughters was finding their great-grandfather’s name–Giovanni Fia–listed on a 1913 ship register.

As might be expected, we ended the day in the gift shop. Jason, the king of museum gift-shop shoppers, loaded up on an assortment of over-priced souvenirs and memorabilia.

After a long day of touring we headed back to Battery Park, split up for dinner, and then headed home. After some fruitful and engaging conversation with a few students on the relationship between history, theory, and liberal arts education we all settled in for our on-bus movie, “The Princess Bride.”

With Larry behind the wheel we got home around 11pm. Overall it was a long and tiring day, but certainly worth it.

Missed It By One Day

My student Colin Riddle just informed me that Bruce Springsteen (and three others) was honored today on Ellis Island. He received the Ellis Island Heritage Award. I can’t believe we missed Springsteen by one day!!

Here is the AP report:

NEW YORK — Everyone knows he was born in the USA, but it was Bruce Springsteen’s European immigrant roots — and his family’s 110-year American dream — that were celebrated on Thursday.

Accompanied by his proud mother and aunts — the women who “provided me with place” and “filled my family and all of my work with great meaning” — the rocker from New Jersey received an Ellis Island Family Heritage Award.

The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, Inc. presents the award to immigrants or their descendants “who have made a major contribution to the American experience.” Also honored were investment banker Peter G. Peterson; Avon Chairman and CEO Andrea Jung, and NBA All-Star Dikembe Mutombo.

“You can’t really know who you are and where you’re going unless you know where you came from,” Springsteen said.

Springsteen’s maternal great-grandmother, Raffaela Zerilli, arrived at Ellis Island from Vico Equense, Italy, on Oct. 3, 1900, with five kids in tow.

“I docked at Ellis Island in a city of light and spires,” their famous descendant later wrote in his song “American Land,” a story not unlike their own.

They joined her husband, Raffaele, in Manhattan’s West Village.

One of those kids, Antonio, grew up and married Adela Sorrentino. Their youngest daughter, Adele, went on to marry Irish-American Douglas Springsteen.

The Springsteens raised their three kids in New Jersey. One of them was a son.

When Bruce was 16, his mom borrowed money to buy him a guitar — an event he later chronicled in a tender tribute, “The Wish.”

He taught himself how to play it — and went on to sell more than 120 million albums worldwide — including “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions — American Land,” released in 2001. The title cut, “American Land,” is a raucous, gritty pantheon of immigrant pluck and pride.

Adele Springsteen, now 85, who worked as a legal secretary for 47 years, went on to dance onstage with her son in New Jersey and Italy.

Her son — the self-described former high school outcast — played the Super Bowl halftime show and President Barack Obama’s inauguration.

And on Thursday, mother, son and aunts found themselves on the island between New York and New Jersey, in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, basking in warm applause.

Adele Springsteen married into poverty and “held our family together under just great, great, great difficulty,” said her son. “Thank you, Mom. I love you very much.”

Aunt Dora Kirby, 90, graduated with honors from college at age 67. “She’s still cranking out people’s income taxes,” and will be available again next tax season, Springsteen said.

Ida Urbellis, 87, another aunt and a longtime garment worker, still works as a hairdresser on Wednesdays and Fridays.

“These fabulous women, they are my living connection to my heritage, to Ellis Island,” said Springsteen.

“They have personified for me the tough optimism and the work ethic of first-generation-born American citizens,” he added. “They lifted my spirit. I think they put the rock and roll in me.”

Ellis Island Bound

I am taking the students in my Immigrant America course to Ellis Island tomorrow. It has been about ten years since I have been there, so I am open to ideas from readers about how to focus our time. Any “must see” or “must do” parts of the trip? A lot of the students want to see Ground Zero. Is there anything there to see?

I am also taking recommendations for restaurants in the general Battery Park area.

Looking for a Good Immigrant Novel?

I just finished Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn. It is a wonderful depiction of a young Irish woman in the 1950s who comes to Brooklyn in search of work. Not only does she find a job in a Brooklyn department store, but she falls in love with a young Italian man who happens to be a die-hard Brooklyn Dodger fan. The book moves slowly as Toibin takes his time developing his lead character, Eilis Lacey. But by the end of the book you care deeply about her and the momentous decisions she must make as she straddles life in the Old World and the New and the tension between her Irish roots and her American dreams. I really like the way Toibin portrays the diversity of 1950s Brooklyn. The depictions and juxtapositions of Irish culture and Italian culture are really well-done.

The Oral History of Immigrants

As part of my course on Immigrant America course I have students conduct a one-hour interview with someone who has immigrated to the United States. This could be a person who has lived here for decades or a relatively new immigrant. The students are required to write an 8-10 page paper based upon the interview.

I thought about this assignment as I read this post on online oral history projects at the AHA Today blog. Maybe some day we can get these student interviews into some kind of web database in order to make them more accessible. Some of them do a very good job with them.

In conducting this project I hope my students will learn:

1). A bit more about the immigrant experience in America and how to connect personal stories to larger historical trends and patterns.

2). A bit more about how to go about conducting an oral history interview

3). A bit more about how to empathize with the stories of people who are different than them. My hope is that some of my students are changed in the course of doing this assignment.

What is Your Favorite Immigrant Song?

This semester I am teaching a course in American immigration history. One of the things I like to do at the start of every class is play an immigrant song. I play everything from Seeger to Guthrie to Diamond to Springsteen to Zeppelin to Genesis. I play Irish immigrant songs and a lot of American folk music.

I am trying to build my immigrant song library. Which songs would you suggest I play for my class this semester?

BTW: We are starting things off tomorrow afternoon with Springsteen, “Land of Hopes and Dreams.”