East Boston

We were recently surprised to learn that the East Boston Immigration Station had been demolished. Billed on its opening in 1920 as Boston’s Ellis Island, the hideous yellow box wedged into Logan Airport at the tip of Jeffries Point in Boston Harbor processed around twenty-three thousand immigrants before its closing in 1954.

For the most part, the Station handled “difficult” cases, with a steady trickle of souls headed either into or out of the country. After Pearl Harbor in 1941, the nastier end of the mix changed from criminals, communists, and union organizers to suspected spies and agents provocateurs–just the people you wanted to rub elbows with on your way to a new life in America.

Famous long-term residents included the glamorous, high-stepping swindler Charles Ponzi of the 1920s, who bilked investors out of $22 million ($215 million today) and was eventually deported to Italy. Another internee was Edith Berkman, a boisterous, dumpy Pole and Communist union organizer targeted for leading the Lawrence textile strikes of the 1930s. Dr. Karl Otto Lange was moved in after being arrested as an enemy alien in his Harvard offices the day after Pearl Harbor. Berkman and Lange both hung on and eventually died American citizens. Lange even found a kind of fame in teaching glider dynamics and training monkeys for outer space.

In the summer of 1972, we lived a few blocks away from the Station in the walk-up tenement house in the top photo. All day and most of the night, Logan Airport roared through the front window while the Bethlehem Shipyard on the harbor clanged away at the back. Our favorite skinny-dipping hole was the dock off the end of the ruined Immigration Station just under the main Logan runway. Late at night, 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, for all our outbursts of xenophobia, 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.

Categories: Massachusetts

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