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We Were Here

by Donna L. Clovis

A ghost town with a Manhattan ZIP code.

It has been 15 years since I rode a ferry away from my childhood home, Governors Island, a 172-acre, effectively-abandoned expanse in the middle of New York Harbor. My father worked on Governors Island when it was still a Coast Guard base, and I am one of those people with a 13-year childhood on the island. Now, returning for the first time since I left, the sounds of the lapping water against the ferry work on me like a musical rhythm, placing me in the familiar trance of yesterday’s childhood. But today, I am a photojournalist professionally documenting the island’s history for an exhibition.

It is a gray day with intermittent rain pelting the panes of the ferry’s windows. I creep quietly down the length of the boat to the large window at the far end, pressing my face against the fogged window like a child for a better view of the Statue of Liberty. I am alone on this boat, and I open a nearby door and feel the strong harbor breeze from the outside. It is a familiar breeze across my face and hair that stirs several memories at once. I lift my camera to my eye and take photographs of the Statue of Liberty and then the island we are fast approaching.

Once the ferry lands, I notice the haunting silence. Governors Island was a lively and vibrant community of people when I lived there as a child. My friends would run quickly to greet me as I came onto the island from the ferry. Families would walk briskly along the promenade. There were picnics, music, old sailors that sat on the sidewalk and told their stores. There was work, play, school, religious ceremonies, weddings, and funerals. There was community.


But today, there is none of that. My camera shutter clicks and echoes. A few seagulls fly, staggered along the skyline as a lone National Park Service Jeep approaches me from the near roadside to escort me through the island to the buildings of my youth.

Until recently, Governors Island, the last of three small islands that lie south of Manhattan, was the largest Coast Guard installation in the world, housing some 5,000 service personnel and their families. Until 1996, it was the oldest military installation in continuous service in the U.S., active since 1637 under the Dutch, the British, and then the Americans. Nowhere in New York City is more pastoral. Indeed, the island possesses unobstructed views of lower Manhattan and the New York Harbor and possesses a handful of post-colonial and nineteenth-century houses, a bank, a golf course, a bowling alley, a school, a Super 8 motel, a Burger King, and a library (all of which are in various states of decay) as well as Fort Jay and Castle William, robust British forts that rival lower Manhattan’s Castle Clinton for its architecture, if not its historical significance.

Governors Island has a long history intertwined with the maturation of Manhattan and New York City. The island was once inhabited by the Canarsee Indians who called it Pagganck. Dutch immigrants occupied the island in the 17th century. In 1698, the colonial legislature gave the island to the English king’s governor as a residence; thus, “Governors Island.” Later a fortress, Castle Williams, was built on the northwest side of the island, which was then used by Americans to defend the city from the British and eventually as a Confederate officer prison during the Civil War. Afterward, Governors Island was used as a U.S. military station, for the U.S. Army and then the Coast Guard, and in 1996, the Coast Guard closed the large base on the island, evicting the hundreds of families who called it home.

Today, an old rusted oven draped in cobwebs stands watch in the once lively Officer’s Club kitchen, and the buildings that once housed apartments and a vibrant and living community have begun to rot. The Park Service and Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation as well as other preservationist groups have come together to create a campaign to restore some of the buildings. But in the meantime, vines and branches grow through the broken windows of structures from the Victorian officers’ homes to the apartment buildings. Poison ivy slips through the cracks of moist masonry and small trees push through the roofs of some buildings. Porches settle at the house where President Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev dined before historically shaking hands in front of the island’s Manhattan backdrop in 1988. Bird droppings and debris cover old wooden floors.

My memories of the Officers' Club allow me to float and dance between the vines on a nearby dance floor in front of torn majestic draperies. I remember tall Coast Guard Officers in crisp, starched uniforms smiling as the music played and families eating at white covered tables. Beautiful ice sculptures decorated the buffet tables and the chef used to give me wonderful pastries to eat.

I can see all of this, but my footsteps and the shutter click from my camera echo loudly to awaken me from just another memory.

After several days of returning and photographing the island, I come home and look up Colonel Zorn, one of the oldest people now living with a life history connected to Governors Island. He knew just about everyone, and he reminds me of many more memories and tells me that the heart of the New York harbor is always in the soul of its former inhabitants. "There's a saying about Governors Island," he said. "No matter where you live now, memories live on forever. You live and die by the ferry."

And it was true. As a child, I played upon this gateway, this harbor haven in New York. Our only lifeline to the rest of the world, the ferry both connected us and isolated us, we who were able to play the only golf course with a Manhattan zip code, we who are now the ghosts in what has for nearly a decade been New York City’s biggest ghost town.

Photographic credits:

  1. Through the Peep Hole:  Playground, Governors Island, Selenium Print, 2004, Donna L. Clovis
  2. Inside Colonel's Row:  Window, Governors Island, Selenium Print, 2004, Donna L. Clovis
  3. Inside the Officer's Club:  Hallway, Governors Island, Selenium Print, 2004, Donna L. Clovis

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Articles in this Issue

Disappeared Detroit, by Jeff Byles
Flotsam and Jetsam, by Sarah Maria Gonzales
Their Mud and Bones, by Bill Lambrecht
We Were Here, by Donna L. Clovis
Library Privileges, by Andrew Phillips
Computer Science, by Michael Bywater
Anatomy, by Fritz Holznagel and Paul Hehn
Child Psychology, by Tim W. Jackson
Sportsmanship, by Grant McCrea
Nutrition, by Sharman Apt Russell


Donna L. Clovis, photographer and journalist, has created projects for New York University and ABC Television in New York. She has served as a Fellow at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and has taught art at the Institute for the Gifted at Princeton University. Clovis has photographic work internationally exhibited and archived at the Museum of Fine Art in Havana, Cuba, The U.S. Holocaust Museum of Washington, DC, the Venice Biennale for Film in Venice, Italy, and the New York Historical Society of New York. Her photographic exhibition of Governors Island, along with excerpts from oral histories of Governors Island residents, is designed to capture the memories and the history of a community and culture that once flourished on the island, now mostly abandoned.

Where loss is found.

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