We are huddled against the rain on the top deck of the Miss Liberty, the ship near its capacity of 800 souls as it cuts through the waves of Upper New York Bay. When the captain pulls in front of Liberty Island, the boat lists to the starboard side as we rush to see the great green colossus 30 stories above. The masses cry out, in many accents and as one: “Can you take a photo?”
For visitors to Liberty Island, this moment—before you even disembark—has long been as good as it gets. From here, it’s a quick stroll around the tiny outcropping, past the overpriced snacks and tchotchkes, a stroll spent looking up at Lady Liberty’s backside. (She faces Brooklyn.) Between 80 and 85 percent of the island’s 4.5 million annual visitors will not be admitted to the statue’s great granite pedestal, which offers views of the harbor, and very few of those are permitted to enter and ascend the statue itself. This is in part the result of post-9/11 security theater, but mostly because the statue just isn’t big enough for the millions who want to visit it. So they wander the island, yell at the employees of the National Park Service, and like their forebears, pass by Ellis Island before they can land in Manhattan.