We were shocked to learn recently that the East Boston Immigration Station has been demolished. Billed on its opening in 1920 as Boston’s Ellis Island, the hideous yellow box at the tip of Jeffries Point in Boston Harbor only processed around twenty-three thousand immigrants before its closing in 1954. For the most part, it handled “difficult” cases, with a steady trickle of souls headed either into or out of the country.
One famous resident was the swindler Charles Ponzi, who waited here for his deportation to Italy. Another was Edith Berkman, the Communist union organizer awaiting a boat back to Germany. Another was Dr. Karl Otto Lange, arrested in his Harvard offices the day after Pearl Harbor as an enemy alien. Dr. Lange hung on with his adopted country and eventually found fame in teaching glider dynamics and training monkeys for trips to outer space.
In the summer of 1972, Lockhart lived a few blocks away on the bony finger of the Point in one of these walk-up tenement houses. All day and most of the night, Logan Airport roared through the front window while the Bethlehem Shipyards on the harbor clanged away at the back. Our favorite skinny-dipping hole was the dock off the end of the ruined and shuttered Immigration Station just under the main Logan runway, where we would climb through the fence, strip off our clothes, and wait for the jets to blow us into the water. It is a miracle that we survived the ecological disaster that was Boston Harbor–but then, this was 1972, with college ending and Vietnam beckoning, and no one gave much of a damn.
An amazing photograph from the cover of the Boston Globe of 24 December, 1922, shows rows of perplexed immigrants in the cage on the roof of the Station following their American minder in a daily regimen of calisthenics. Silly as it looks today, it is the gentlest of reminders that America really is, and always has been, all about hope, freedom, and the promise of a new start in life. Not the easiest standards to live up to, but as a country and a community, we at least seem to keep trying.