Lifelong viewer, first-time visitor
I lived just a few miles away for 21 years, and I've been back in the area many times in the decades since, but for some reason I never made it out to Liberty Island to get up close and personal with the fabulous lady. We could see the back of it from our high school grounds, and of course, there's a darned good look at the statue from the Staten Island Ferry, but we never took in the view from the base.
Part of the reason for this is that back in the day, there was no easy way to get out there from our Jersey environs. All that's changed now, and has been for many years since a couple of old-timers from Jersey City created a park out of a dump. Visitors to Liberty State Park have an easy tour boat ride to both Liberty and Ellis Islands. On our recent east coast swing, we were fortunate enough to take that ride and see both of those national monuments.
Along the way, my daughters asked me to explain how the statue got there. The way I told it to them, the heart of it was that Americans didn't want to live under a king, and neither did the French, and we fought the revolution to get out from under King George in England, and that showed the French people how to do it, and so then they got rid of their king, and they were so grateful to us for showing them what to do that they wanted to give us a present. I'm not even sure that was what it was all about, but I just kept pouring out the story as I remembered it, so deeply honored to have the chance to play that role for my very own kids. God is great.
Late sleepers that we were, we didn't get a chance to climb around inside the statue -- the line to do that seemed pretty awful, even for those who got there early enough to score passes to do so -- but we did spend a goodly amount of time walking all around the base with hundreds of other admirers from around the world. Very little English was being spoken.
The exhibits told the story of the gift well, and quite a bit of attention was paid to the folks on both sides of the Atlantic who imagined, financed, and built it. Factoids: An early idea was to fill the interior of the thing with bags of sand. Fortunately Eiffel was available to fashion a steel frame instead. Newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer was a big cheerleader for the project, and lots of little folks threw nickels and dimes to make it work. I'm sure there were plenty of naysayers around grumbling, "Why can't they just fix the potholes?" but their side of it is missing from the official version on display.
There was some security theater for us to go through getting on the boat, but nothing more than what you get at the airport. A couple of the young guys working the X-ray line asked me, out of the blue, what it was like when the country had a military draft. I felt pretty funny explaining it to them -- shouldn't they already know? But of course, why should they? They weren't even a twinkle in anybody's eye back when they picked my lottery number out of the hat. It was my day to teach history.
Times change, and man, downtown Jersey City sure has. Bombed-out blocks of cold-water flats have disappeared, replaced by gleaming condo and office towers -- which make sense, since they're a two-minute train ride away from lower Manhattan. The guys who were smart enough to buy up those derelict properties in the '70s and '80s doubtlessly made out well -- but probably not as well as the developers to whom they later sold out. It's hard to argue with any of them, though -- they did alleviate blight and bring the land up to its highest and best use.
The only blue note on our fantastic trip to the statue was the view. Oh, it's a great look at the world's greatest city, all right. But many of us who remember what it looked like just seven years ago can't help but see, and feel, what's no longer there. There'll always be a scar.