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Preserving Boston's immigration history without its Ellis Island

Posted by Rob Anderson  January 3, 2011 02:01 PM

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It's always sad when historic buildings are slated to be torn down, even when it's a crumbling, water-logged behemoth like the former East Boston Immigration Station. This particular building, which will be demolished by the end of the month, was the entry point of an estimated 23,000 American immigrants between 1920 and 1954. But as the video above illustrates, for the thousands of people who passed through its doors on their way to becoming American citizens, the building was more than just a processing center; it was the place where their many families' American journey began, or, at least, where it took some unexpected turns.

Last July, Renee Loth argued that the building, known by some as "Boston's Ellis Island," should be preserved as a part of a museum focusing on Boston’s immigration history. "Skeptics are correct that launching a new museum is a vast undertaking," Loth admitted. But, she argued, "East Boston should have some permanent way to commemorate its immigration history — a living history given the waves of newcomers still flocking to the neighborhood." She continued:

The community suffers from a patchwork of unconnected sites, from the city’s first Jewish cemetery on Wordsworth Street to a historic settlement house in Eagle Hill to the carved stone pillars representing the four compass points at Piers Park. An immigrants’ heritage trail that pulls the sites together would be an achievable — though insufficient —alternative to a museum. Massport ought to help make that happen.

I agree with the basic premise of Renee's argument: It would benefit the city to have a museum in which the story of Boston's immigrants were told and preserved for future generations. (Or, for that matter, our current generation, which is having its own trials and tribulations with immigrants and immigration policy.) But it's worth pointing out that that history doesn't necessarily have to be preserved within the exact same building in which it occurred. That story can be told just as effectively -- or even more so -- at some other location. The memories of what took place inside the East Boston Immigration Station will outlast the building itself. And there's no good reason why that history shouldn't be preserved before it really is too late.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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