By James Devitt

In the wake of September 11, Ellis Island became both a symbol of American nationalism and a reminder of heightened domestic security as a result of the attacks. President George Bush addressed the nation from Ellis Island one year after the destruction of the World Trade Center, underscoring its status as an American icon in the post-9/11 world. Meanwhile, access to the island is now prefaced by security checks rivaling, and perhaps surpassing, those at U.S. airports.

But has the Ellis Island experience changed as a result of 9/11?

NYU history professor Daniel Walkowitz, whose father and grandparents came through the island in 1920, sought to answer this question during a visit to Ellis Island’s Immigration Museum in 2004. His essay addressing this question appears in Memory, Race, and the Nation, which Walkowitz co-edited with University of Massachusetts and Dartmouth professor Lisa Maya Knauer, a graduate of NYU’s doctoral program in American Studies. The volume, part of a series on historical memory and public space, will be published by Duke University Press next year. Memory and the Impact of Political Transformation in Public Space, also co-edited by Walkowitz and Knauer, was published in 2004.

After his visit to the Immigration Museum two years ago for the first time since 1991, Walkowitz found little had changed in its exhibits. The focus remains on the immigrants who passed through Ellis Island in the first quarter of the 20th century. “Visitors will, on the one hand, continue to bring expectations that Ellis is a national story, but on the other hand they often bring specific identity concerns-the belief that ‘their own’ ethnic story will be highlighted,” he wrote. “Curators constantly navigate tensions between serving identities of those whose story is ‘missing’ and the site as one of endless competing claims.”

In fact, Walkowitz contended, the message of Ellis Island remains, in many ways, economic rather than patriotic. The island’s exhibits serve as a narrative of the growth of the American empire beginning at the turn of the 20th century. “The American Empire which was put in place during these years would establish a context and discourse for managerial responses to labor markets and competition that would become legitimized over the course of the 20th century as the product of ‘natural’ market forces,” he wrote. “Clothing firms would get cheap raw materials and, in time, as Jewish immigrant labor organizers mobilized, move their mills to alternative global labor, initially in the South, but in time to Asia and Central America. Ellis Island then is where the American discourse on both opportunity and liberty is forged, a story that naturalizes the mobility of capital alongside that of people.”

From NYU Today, September 11, 2006.

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