In the latest chapter of the long-running dispute with New York, New Jersey’s choice of Ellis Island for a new quarter to be issued by the U.S. Mint next year has led to disagreements and complications.
One member of Congress from Long Island accused New Jersey of trying to steal from New York, just as it “stole” the Jets and Giants football teams. Two government committees responsible for reviewing designs picked different images, after one of them rejected all of the proposals in October. And the managing editor of a major coin collecting magazine said he’s never seen a similar controversy.
After an earlier series of quarters depicting scenes from each state turned out to be popular — and helped in a small way to lower the deficit because collectors buy the coins but don’t use them — Congress in 2008 approved a series of America the Beautiful quarters that would let each state feature a national park, historic or natural site within its borders.
As the entry point for 17 million immigrants between 1892 and 1954, there’s little disputing that Ellis Island qualifies for recognition on the national currency. But putting it on a state quarter reopened a dispute that has raged for more than a century over whether the island is in New Jersey or New York. Even though a 1998 Supreme Court ruling divided Ellis Island between the states — and said most of the land is in New Jersey — things would clearly have been far simpler if the Garden State had picked a national historic site that is indisputably within its borders, like Thomas Edison’s laboratory or the Revolutionary War encampment in Morristown. (For those wondering about Paterson’s Great Falls, that did not become a national park until after the selection was made by New Jersey in 2009.)
While New York has claim to only about 3 of the more than 27 acres on Ellis Island, the land that is in New Jersey includes mostly buildings that are not in use, and many of them are dilapidated. The only way visitors can see most of the state’s land is on “hard hat tours” run by Save Ellis Island Inc., which is trying to raise money to redevelop the New Jersey side of the island.
Two buildings in New Jersey, the hospital complex and the Ferry Building, are on competing designs chosen this year by two committees that advise the government on coins.
Those groups, the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee and the Commission on Fine Arts, faced a special hurdle that they did not face in dealing with other states, which was ensuring the New Jersey quarter did not show something in New York, including the places most visitors get to tour.
The reception building or Great Hall — “the most iconic building on Ellis Island,” park Superintendent John Piltzecker told the citizens committee in October — is in New York. So are the National Museum of Immigration and, of course, the Statue of Liberty, which stands on a neighboring island but is part of the same national park.
The citizens committee rejected all the designs before it at that October meeting, and minutes posted on its website show one member was hoping for new images “with probably a little more pizazz.”
Picking a view
Donald Scarinci, a Lyndhurst lawyer and a member of the committee, suggested a design might be made from the American Immigrant Wall of Honor, a series of personal plaques with names of immigrant families that came through the island — and is on New Jersey land. He also suggested a view of the island from a footbridge that connects with Liberty State Park in Jersey City.
That bridge has a long-contentious history with the park service. Built for construction vehicles to work on the island, it is not open for park visitors, who must arrive by boat, even though it would make reaching Ellis Island a short walk from the Jersey City park.
Scarinci, a member of the committee since 2005 and an avid coin collector who has one of the world’s largest collections of art medals, saw no problem with New Jersey choosing a national park that straddles two states. Indeed, he argued the coin could help settle future arguments.
“One thing I always say about coins is when we are all dust, coins remain. That’s been the case since ancient Greece, where there are coins that show buildings that have long since disintegrated,” he said. “Here there’s a United States circulating quarter that’s going to be around a lot longer than any of us. Centuries from now this quarter will be around, and it does stake New Jersey’s claim to Ellis Island.”
Battles between states over the images depicted on coins have happened before, according to William T. Gibbs, managing editor of Coin World. In the original series of state quarters, which ended in 2008, North Carolina showed pioneering aviator Orville Wright’s first flight, while Ohio used an early Wright aircraft in a montage focused on the state’s aviation heritage.
“Of course that was a continuation of the states’ twin claims to the Wright Brothers. However, I can’t recall anything quite like the current New Jersey selection controversy,” Gibbs said.
The choice is made
But New Jersey’s pick of Ellis Island riled Rep. Peter King, a Republican from Long Island.
“New Jersey really wants to be New York,” King told the New York Post last year. “They are always trying to imitate us. They live in our shadow, and now they are trying to make believe they are New York.”
But the choice of the island is done, and the only decision that remains is which design is minted.
The citizens committee in February chose a modified version of a design it had rejected in October. It shows a family of three immigrants, including a pregnant mother, with the hospital building in the background. The only change from last year was that it shows a child holding a small flag.
Back in October, the Commission on Fine Arts chose the same image without the flag, but when it voted again in February following the citizens committee, it picked a different view that shows a family of four on a boat approaching the Ferry Building.
The U.S. Mint is likely to send both groups’ suggestions to Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, who will make the final decision before the coin is struck next year.
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