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Postcards from Liberty Island

2004.09.28 — Culture | Postcards | Travel | by Derek Jensen

Statue of Liberty

Statue from front, colorized. (hi res)

Stuck in Jersey for the weekend, I finally went to see the Statue of Liberty. As I thought, it is an impressive sight, but Liberty Park is not the treat I imagined (others seem to agree). Still, the statue is so magnificent in person, so iconic and beautiful, it's well worth the trip.

First, I checked out the park on the Internet, mainly looking for directions from Jersey City. I figured I could take the PATH subway or the light rail, but this and a related site just said to call NJ Transit. Thanks.

Of course, for out-of-town visitors, there is even less info. They basically just says "fly to New York or Newark." It could have at least followed with "then ask around."

Liberty Park Road

Liberty Park Road. (hi res)

Once I found a map, I decided to take the light rail to Liberty Park. Unfortunately, I did not realize how big the park is, and discovered that from the train stop I needed to take a bus. The bus is $1.10 and requires exact change.

The bus driver lady took pity on me (all I had was twenties) and let me ride for free; I promised to have exact change for the ride back and figured I'd pay double. I don't want to be indebted to the state of New Jersey for any reason.

The bus travels down an impossibly bumpy cobblestone road to the main building. The road seems to have been laid by the WPA in the 30s by a gang of out-of-work speed bump makers.

Liberty Park building

Liberty Park building. (hi res)

At the end of the road lies the Liberty Park main building, where, presumably, trains and ferries once met for regular commuters. Today, it's empty but for the ticket counter, information desk, and refreshment stand.

The obvious question for anyone visiting the Liberty Park main building is "where the hell is the Statue of Liberty?" It's a mile and a half south on Liberty Island, obscured by buildings.

I tried to get a ticket for the ferry about to leave at 1:30, but the ticket girl didn't want to sell it to me because it was 1:27, and I'm too polite to press the issue. Others immediately in front of me did get tickets and happily got aboard, since the ferry hung around until 1:40 or so. I vowed to one day get revenge on the ticket girl.

I'm very polite, but equally vengeful.

Liberty Park ferry pier

Liberty Park's rotting ferry piers, conveniently located nowhere near the monument. (hi res)

Meanwhile, I tried to catch a shuttle bus to the observation point across from the Liberty Island, which is on the other side of the park. This is where it gets weird. I asked the folks at the information desk how to catch the shuttle, since all I really wanted was decent pictures. "Pictures of what?" the lady asked.

"Pictures of the statue...." I said, and then added, "...of Liberty." When confronted with a person that dumb, I try to be very specific.

"You could walk," suggested the man. I asked how far it was. "Um... 1.6 miles," he said. "About a 45 minute walk.... Some people walk it," he added lamely.

Statue of Liberty Ferry

Ferry riders. (hi res)

Now I'm sure some people do walk it, but not me. Altho, if I did, as the world's fastest amateur walker, it sure as hell would not take me 45 minutes to walk a mile and a half. I repeated my question about the shuttle.

The information desk people then explained that the park shuttle runs every 20 minutes but they didn't know how much it cost or if it required exact change, which it does, I found out, because it's the same bus I took from the train stop.

This was one of those conversations with service workers that baffle me. I get them at hotels occasionally when I ask a difficult question like, "What is the date next Monday?" It's a question firmly rooted in the world they work in every day, and yet it somehow turns out to be a stumper.

Statue of Liberty with George Washington Bridge

Statue with Verrazano Narrows Bridge.
(hi res)

After waiting another fifteen minutes for the bus and encountering only a bus going back to the train station, I decided I might as well take the ferry to the statue, and bought a ticket for the 2:15 (they run every 45 minutes).

I stopped at the information desk to inform them about the shuttle bus. They mentioned that they had noticed me before and thought I had gotten lost. I explained that I had been looking for a place to get exact change for the bus. There is none, unless you count buying an over-priced soda from the concessionaire. They acted as tho they had never heard of such a thing as exact change.

Empire State Buliding with boats

Empire State Building with boats. (hi res)

So I got on the ferry to the statue. I didn't anticipate the level of security they have there. It's tighter than at any airport I've flown thru. They required us to remove watches, belts, change, and even wallets and put them thru the X-ray machine before we passed thru the metal detector.

I complained that I'd never had to take out my wallet in an airport. What could you carry in a wallet that wouldn't be made of metal but which could cause harm to a ferry? Now that's a stumper.

They aren't worried about shoe bombs, tho. Unlike the airport, we didn't have to take off our shoes, which indicated to me that the metal detectors were not set at a very high sensitivity. So, the strict procedures are... all for show.

Ellis Island architecture

Ellis Island architecture. (hi res)

The ferry went first to Ellis Island, landfall for millions of brand-new Americans in the late 19th and early 20th century. I like history, but I didn't bother to get out. The main building was a nice piece of architecture, but I didn't think there would be anything especially interesting inside.

...Maybe glass cases containing all the lost-and-found items of twelve million immigrants.



Ellis Island ruins

Ellis Island's decrepit ruins. (hi res)

Like the main park dock, Ellis Island has some decrepit piers and even a sunken boat. I imagined that the boat was a small steamer from Copenhagen carrying my great-grandfather's brother, foundered in a storm with all souls lost in a fog so thick they never knew that they were just 25 feet from shore.

I don't think the real story is that dramatic, which makes me think they should just yank the ramshackle crap out. A rotting wooden pier is not a historical landmark. What next? They stop taking out the park garbage?


Then came the statue. Wow, what a sight.

Statue of Liberty

Statue from her left. (hi res)


The Statue of Liberty is one of my favorite works of engineering and architecture and art, as well as a stirring symbol of liberty and the American way. It is truly a wonder to behold. Its proportions are magnificent. Its shape is stately, slightly stylized in the human form, yet strangely realistic in the robes.

Anyone who looks at it and can still sneer at the French is a sorry bastard. They gave us the eighth wonder of the world. As a gift. Just because they liked us.

Statue of Liberty with Manhattan

Statue with Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridge. (hi res)

The ferry comes around it from the north on the east side, with the sun in your eyes (unless it's noon at mid-summer). The shadow of her raised arm falls across her face, so she's not so photogenic from her left side for most of the year. Save most of your pics for the moment when you get around in front of her.

I'd like to get pictures of the statue at night. I can't remember seeing any in books. But since the only good close-up shots you can get are from the water, and since night shots require long exposures, I'm not sure how I'd do it. Maybe a long lens on the Manhattan shore would get good pics.

I recommend getting at the front of the boat if you can, which means the second deck instead of the top deck (the bridge is at the front on top).

Statue of Liberty

Statue from her right. (hi res)

I saw a website posting that recommended waiting until you are leaving Liberty Island to take your pictures from the ferry. I disagree for two reasons.

1) Always take the best pictures you can take when you can take them (this is especially easy for digital photographers; if you run out of space on your memory card, you can go back and delete the lamer ones).

2) The ferry I was on for the ride back didn't have nearly as good a view of the statue. It was smaller, with much more limited access up front.


It was interesting to see the sailboats and speedboats out in the harbor, cruising around with a view of the statue and Manhattan. That would be a nice day in the sun. Nothing in Indiana compares to it, to be sure, altho there may be more sailboats on Lake Michigan, I think, at least on the Chicago side. And it would be pretty nice to cruise the lake with a view of the Loop.

Statue of Liberty

Statue from front, close. (hi res)

On the other hand, it was odd to think that we had had to practically strip down to our underwear to get on the ferry while strangers in powerboats sped along the water. If terrorists wanted to do some damage to the statue or one of the ferries, I imagine they would get themselves a fast boat and pack it with explosives.

...Not that a boat bomb would do much to the statue. She's pretty high up and well away from the shore on her stone perch on top of that star-shaped dais.


You disembark on Liberty Island on the statue's right and walk around behind her, between a pair of stately old buildings. I think one is a museum; the other is labeled "REFRESHMENTS." I should have taken a picture. It's the fanciest damn refreshment stand I'd ever seen.

Statue of Liberty

Statue from her left, close.
(hi res)

Directly behind the statue is a tent containing all manner of lame kitsch and tchotchkes. There are all kinds of dumb coins, medallions, collectibles, models, candles, mugs, and whatnot with Liberty on them.

To one side of that is the entrance to the base. You have to have a special "timed" ticket, available on the Internet (a few are available at the ferry ticket counter, but they run out early). I didn't care to go up in the base anyway. I figured I knew approximately what I'd find inside: a few original pieces of the statue, some displays of diagrams, and a whole lotta stank.


On the island itself, I was surprised how good the shots were that I could get. The island sticks out well in front of the statue, with a nice promenade around the front that's not too crowded (on a Sunday in September, anyway).

People were all trying to get the same kind of shot: family lined up with the statue in the background. Some people try to do it by putting the subject out on the grass close to the statue, but that only ensures that the only background you can see is the base.

Self portrait with Statue of Liberty

Self with statue. (hi res)

Some photographers crouch low on the ground up against the fence, trying to get it all in, but that's not necessary either.

The right way to do it is for the subject to stand on the retaining wall in front of the statue and for the photographer to be a few feet away, crouched slightly to get the statue in full in the background. Works great.

There is a professional photographer there taking pictures of idiots who forgot their camera. Watch him or her if you're unsure of the proper technique.

While I was trying to take a self-portrait at arm's length, a guy offered to take the pic for me. He took one that looked pretty good and then another for me. Then I took a couple of him and his daughter.


Statue of Liberty

Statue from back, close.

(hi res | original)

In line for the ferry back, a little girl was arguing with her mother that the Statue of Liberty was in New York, not New Jersey. Her Jersey mother protested, teasing "She's ours. Whose side are you on?"

Her mother gave up eventually, as most Jersey folks have, and let New York have the statue. She officially stands in New York Harbor, in waters belonging to and administrated by the state of New Jersey.

But even the little girl should know that. Look at that booty. A booty that big has got to belong to a Jersey girl.

I never did take the bus back to the train stop and pay my debt to New Jersey. I got tired of waiting and just walked it. It was about a mile, maybe more. Of course, a couple of buses came whizzing by me as I walked, but there are no intermediate stops along the way, even at the other, more distant parking lots.


Statue of Liberty

Statue from left side, colorized. (hi res)

Some of the left-side shots I took were too strongly backlit to look good normally. But by heavily processing them, I got them to look kind of cool.

I boosted the brightness and contrast to the point of burning out the sky, then desaturated and colorized them to give them a hand-tinted look.

The results make great desktop backgrounds.


I figure I should include the wonderful Emma Lazarus poem written for the statue and engraved on a plaque at her base. In it, she doesn't ask for the best and brightest that foreign nations have to offer. She doesn't ask for bourgeois middle-class businessmen or trade goods or treaties. She asks for the dregs of society, people who have nothing of value and nothing to offer, people who have nothing but a dream of freedom. It's a bold challenge to foreign lands, not to mention to Americans already living the dream. It says that America can take the seeds of raw human potential and nurture them to full bloom.


Statue of Liberty

Statue from her left, colorized. (hi res)

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!


What a woman.



More postcards from Manhattan...

More postcards from Jersey...


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