I’ve lived in New York for a year and a half. I’ve wanted to live in New York since I was ten years old and realized what New York City was. I’ve never felt more at home, geographically than I do here. My heart swells each time the skyline comes into view and while this place is both harder than I could ever imagine and more wonderful than I could ever dream, it's the place I am thrilled to call home. But I could live here ten, twenty, thirty years-hell, the rest of my life here and I doubt I will ever call myself a New Yorker.
There’s such a hullabaloo made over the term “New Yorker-” who it belongs to, who is “allowed” to use it, how many years you must live here and milestones you must pass before a person who is not a native New Yorker can call themselves a New Yorker. This drives me nuts. I didn’t move to New York to call myself a New Yorker. I moved here to live in the city I’d been dreaming about since I was a kid. I didn’t move to New York to gentrify my tiny little neighborhood in Queens or take over or act as if I’d lived here my whole life. I moved here to chase a dream I’d had since I was four, to create art and live in a place that had taken hold of my heart and wouldn’t let go.
So when the word “transplant” is used negatively, dismissively and with a sense of entitlement, I cringe. First of all, every native New Yorker, with the exception of Native American New Yorkers, has someone in their family who was a transplant. Someone who came here from someplace else for many of the same reasons that people still move to the city every single day. For new beginnings, for freedom, for opportunity, dreams and to renew their sense of hope. They came here because the siren song of the greatest city in the world is hard to resist.
Not all “transplants” are here to gentrify or push edge people out. These generalizations don't work and aren't fair. Many of us are here humbly, quietly and just striving to pay rent on our tiny one bedroom walk-ups far outside of Manhattan. Most of us just want to chase our dreams and be a part of the energy and electricity that surges through the city. Most of us are respectful and want to know our neighbors, support our community and be a part of the multi-cultural, multi-generational, multi-storied world that is the city.
I’ve always been fascinated with immigration stories, particular those of the 12 million third-class passengers that came through Ellis Island. To me this is the population of people who came to this city most eager, most hopeful and with the most to lose. I’ve been to Ellis a number of times but recently had the opportunity to see the island in a way I’d never experienced.
One of my favorite artists, JR-a French photographer, artist and urban activist has been working for four years on a residency in conjunction with Ellis Island to showcase the stories of immigrants in the abandoned hospital buildings on the island. The hospital, along with all the surrounding buildings has not been opened to the public since Ellis Island closed it’s doors in the 1954. No one has been in the buildings besides the main museum since that time. A few weeks ago I was one of the first people to tour the hospital facility since it closed. After signing my life away, I put on a hard hat and with ten other people got an up close look at the abandoned building that held so many stories, had seen so many people.
JR’s work, “Unframed-Ellis Island” project is a series of wheat paste tableaus inspired by archival photographs taken of immigrants who’d been processed through Ellis Island. Placed strategically and site specifically, doctors adorn the walls of the room that was the surgical theatre, nurses smile in a linen storage room and a family stands looking out of a broken window across the water to the Statue of Liberty. Whether you believe in presence or ghosts, even the most adamant disbeliever can’t deny the history that smacks you in the face each time you enter a room. Desk drawers have been haphazardly left hanging open, chairs are piled up in the tiny rooms that once housed patients, and the walls buzz with an electricity that’s hard to deny.
As I rode the ferry back to Manhattan that rainy, gray day I couldn't get those photographs out of my head. The eyes full of hope, the faces full of fear and the tangibility of what could be-these were things I recognized and understood. Things that perhaps those who've lived here their entire lives can't quite understand-that to come here is brave, difficult and not always met with welcome tidings. But for many of us, it's the opportunity we have to begin again, to write new stories, chase dreams and live in a city we've always loved, even from far away.
"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"