ELLIS ISLAND, N.J. - A few yards away from the 2 million tourists who visit the restored immigration museum here each year lies the south side - the dark side - of Ellis Island.
The nearly 30 buildings on New Jersey's side are filled with mold, vines, poison ivy, paint chips, and bird droppings accumulated over the decades. Mainly former hospital buildings and isolation wards for immigrants who carried diseases or who were mentally ill, many reached the point of near-collapse.
Park Service plans
Now, under a multiphase project to stem the deterioration, the National Park Service has stabilized six of the buildings, which have been off-limits to the public.
The Park Service's plans are to one day restore the entire south side. But first they want to restore a passageway that would allow the public to at least view the south side. The passageway restoration, they estimate, will cost $1 million, which they are seeking in state funds.
The Park Service and Save Ellis Island Inc., a nonprofit group, recently sponsored a tour of the south side for more than 20 New Jersey legislators. The hope, said Judith R. McAlpin, president of Save Ellis Island, was to stimulate the legislators' interest in the forgotten part of Ellis Island, and drum up support for the funding of a restored passageway to the south side from the already renovated north end of the island.
"Ellis Island is not what pops into most minds when you think about the portion of the state waterfront that is having a renaissance," McAlpin said. "We want to educate the legislators, give them a direct and meaningful connection to Ellis Island. We want them to see what state funds have done as far as stabilizing buildings, and also what more funding can do."
State Assembly Speaker Albio Sires and Senate Majority Leader Bernard F. Kenney, who worked with Save Ellis Island to coordinate the tour, told their colleagues during a luncheon on the island that funding was crucial to preserving the famous immigrant gateway.
By funding the passageway, Sires said, state leaders could be "a part of the history of this place."
The hourlong tour began on the New York side, at the stately Main Building, restored several years ago at the same time renovations were done on the Statue of Liberty. From there, the legislators donned hard hats and continued on to the south side buildings - including two that are under restoration, some that have been stabilized, and the dilapidated isolation wards.
Elizabeth K. Nitze, public affairs coordinator for Save Ellis Island, described how broken windows and doors in some of the now stabilized buildings had caused the structures to deteriorate. Many of the buildings, in fact, were impossible to see just a few years ago because of the brambles that covered them.
Pigeons and wind and rain had entered through the broken windows. That has all been fixed now in a few buildings, she said. But stabilization only helps to "buy time, a few years," she said. Without restoration, she said, "deterioration will be inevitable; the buildings, a part of this country's history, will be lost."
More than 12 million immigrants arrived at Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954; 355 babies were born there. Former Gov. Christine Todd Whitman approved a plan in 2000 to rebuild much of the south side, which the Supreme Court ruled in 1998 was mainly on New Jersey territory.
"My mother was 8 years old when she came from Russia, through here," said Assemblywoman Loretta Weinberg, a Teaneck Democrat. "She went through the processing here, and she took the ferry to the trains. She told me their big worry at that time was pink eye, and that you could be sent back to your country for that."
Walking toward the brick and terra cotta buildings, Weinberg said she had never seen the south side, and that all Americans should have a chance to view it.
"It's wonderful that this work is being done and that the public will be able to see it," she said.
$300 million cost
Save Ellis Island estimates the entire south-side restoration will cost $300 million. After final plans for the restoration are drafted by late summer, the group plans to launch a national fund-raising campaign to help finance the restoration. Tentative plans include conference and learning centers focusing on immigration, public health, and environmental issues.
Officials of Save Ellis Island believe restoration of the passageway would help bring the south side to life for the American public, and persuade people to support its revamping.
"Even bringing people to that little corner of the south side, where they see some of the buildings, represents a significant step to achieving the larger goal of restoration," McAlpin said. "If we're going to mount a successful campaign that will seek several hundred million dollars, people need to come and see what we're talking about doing for themselves."
Sires and Kenney expressed certainty that the Legislature would approve some funding, perhaps this year, for the passageway. They added that given the budget cuts this year, it was unlikely the entire $1 million those on the restoration project are seeking will be approved in the near future. "Even some funding for the passageway would help," Sires said.