All posts by Andrea Cordonier


Ellis Island: JR and the Art of Immigration

The United States, like Canada, is a country of immigrants. Between 1892 and 1954, twelve million citizens of other nations landed at Ellis Island seeking asylum in their new homeland. Close to 40% of Americans can trace their genealogy through these early immigrants.1

There are two kinds of Ellis Island tours available. The first is a free audio tour of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum and is included in the general $18 ferry ticket. (Note: most of the museum’s artifacts have been removed due to water damage incurred during  Hurricane Sandy.) The ferry also makes stops at the Statue of Liberty, but does not include admission to the top of the statue.

The second, a 90-minute docent-led tour, permits access for a limited number of guests to the unrestored hospital and some of the other buildings that are not open to the general public. Within these buildings, French artist JR has installed photographs of some of the immigrants who passed through the hospital, breathing new life into the space.

I was really at Ellis Island to access the JR tour. Not only do I like exploring abandoned buildings, the subject matter is particularly relevant to my field of interest: the relationship of people to their homes and communities. And while I wholly subscribe to the idea of Ask and you shall receive, on occasion – and much to my chagrin –  I don’t always get what I want.


Me: Hi. I’m in from out of town and I really want to see the J.R. art tour of Ellis Island.

Her: Do you have a ticket?

Me: No. I called this morning but no one called me back.

Her: You must buy tickets in advance.

Me: I tried, but I thought I’d just come down and see if there’s a “no show.” There are always no-shows, especially on an awful day like today. I’m happy to pay.

Her: You can’t do that.

Me: Why not if there’s room?

Her: Those are the rules.

Me: Ummm, is it a security thing?

Her: Those are the the rules.

Me: But there’s always a way around things.

Her: (Laughs) There’s no way around this. I’m the person you have to talk to. You have to call Statue Cruises. And all the tours are sold out through next month.

Me: So I guess I have to be a local or on a foreign tour that books months in advance? So much for accessibility.

Her: (stares)

A few minutes later, Buddy In a Dark Suit is standing next to me while I photograph the Great Hall.

Over the years, millions of people have passed through the old hospital at Ellis Island on their way to freedom in America. Clearly, I wasn’t going to be one of them.


Here’s a peek at the JR tour:

And a photo tour of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum:

Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island
The more things change…
Ellis Island Immigration Museum
All immigrants climbed these stairs. Doctors, placed along their lengths, were quickly able to identify disabilities and other health problems. They would be chalked accordingly.
Ellis Island Immigration Museum
The Great Hall which, at first, contained livestock-like pens, then later, long wooden benches. The typical immigrant spent 3 to 5 hours here prior to release.
Ellis Island Immigration Museum
Detainee bunks
Ellis Island Immigration Museum
Graffiti-covered walls
Ellis Island Immigration Museum
The Window of Freedom

Ellis Island Immigration Museum Ellis Island Immigration Museum Ellis Island Immigration Museum Ellis Island Immigration Museum Ellis Island Immigration Museum

Additional Reading:

The Library of Congress: Topics in Chronicling America – Ellis Island Interactive Tour of Ellis Island

History Channel: This Day in History – Ellis Island

New York Public Library: Why Your Family Name Was Not Changed on Ellis Island



Three Days, Two Skates and One Big Apple

In my rural village of a hundred souls we wait for a deep spell of cold, with little snowfall, to produce sturdy, pristine ice on the canal. Our natural rinks, spontaneously cleared by locals, last a few hours or a few days, eventually kiboshed by fluctuating temperatures, freezing rain or heavy snowpack. But while they last, those precious days are some of the most magical of the year.

In New York City, little is left to volunteers and Mother Nature’s whims. According to schedule, spaces are cleared, ice-making equipment is tuned up, and private and public outdoor rinks throughout the city are constructed. Lessons are booked, pick-up hockey is organized, and lovers ice skate by the light of the moon. From November to March, residents and visitors fulfill their winter fantasies.

I packed my skates and mapped out a plan to visit a number of iconic and lesser-known New York City ice rinks. But Mother Nature triumphed spectacularly.

We were bumped to an evening flight due to torrential downpours and strong winds, one of the hundreds of cancelled flights in and out of La Guardia that day. The next morning we woke up to this:

Bad weather in New York City

Flash flooding lay waste to the outdoor rinks and my carefully laid plans. But, by the evening, a few snowflakes had begun to fall and, the following morning, we were blessed with this:


Jumping out of bed, I packed up and headed for a latte at Caffe Reggio,  Greenwich Village’s iconic coffee house and home of the first cappuccino machine in America.

Caffe Reggio in Greenwich Village, New York City

But it was a no go on the joe. Compliments of the Commissioner of  the Department of Health & Mental Hygiene, the place was shut up tight. Disappointed? Yes. Somehow spared? Who’s to know? Cannoli at Pasticceria Rocco more than sufficed, and I grabbed the Q train to Brooklyn.

At 10:00am on a Thursday, Prospect Park was empty except for an odd dog walker. Designed by Olmsted and Vaux, it is a mini-Central Park, created in the mid-19th century to attract the wealthy and accommodate the needs of the commuter suburb of Brooklyn, at the time, the third-largest city in the U.S. after NYC and Philadelphia.

I was the third person to step onto the immaculate ice surfaces at the LeFrak Centre, which includes two rinks, one covered and one open air with generous views of Prospect Lake. Maybe two dozen people showed up in total, but I was as good as alone. Plenty of room to skate my heart out to the piped-in tunes of Wham’s Last Christmas and the Eagles’ Take it Easy. ($6 adult entry fee, $6 skate rental)

Ice skating rinks in New York City, Prospect Park Ice skating rinks in New York City Ice skating rinks in New York City, Prospect Park

I skipped a 37-stop bus ride to Brooklyn’s other outdoor rink, opting for Manhattan and the South Street Seaport, a micro-rink in the original port of NYC…

Ice skating rinks in New York City, South Street Seaport Ice skating rinks in New York City, South Street Seaport

…a snowball’s throw from here:

NYCSouthStreetSeaportAttractions NYCSouthStreetSeaportAttractions-7 NYCSouthStreetSeaportAttractions-6

It may not be the largest or fanciest of the outdoor rinks, but it’s worth checking out for the area’s East River location, history, architecture and artisanal stores and restaurants.  ($10 entry fee; $6 skate rental – but I didn’t see a kiosk so I skated for free)


I hated to rush off,  but at 4:45pm I had a date with Husband (and a Zamboni) at the rink at The Standard Highline Hotel in the Meatpacking district.

In the mid-winter cloak of early darkness, small children clung to oversized penguins for balance, chopping their way across the ice. Their parents sat rinkside with hot drinks, under the glow of heat lamps that made the breezy outdoors comfortable. The lounge, entered through bright yellow revolving doors, is separated from the elements by floor to ceiling glass and offers a helluva view of the inside and outside action. It’s lively and  romantic. It would be the perfect place to try skating on a first date: intimate and easily accessible to alcohol.

Ice skating rinks in New York City, The Standard High Line Ice skating rinks in New York City, The Standard High Line Hotel

We drank the most excellent mugs of hot chocolate and Bailey’s until Hayley and Tenzin showed up with their “baby” Zamboni. It’s really a modified golf cart, complete with plastic tanks of water and a switch-operated blade.

Of course I begged them to drive it, telling them it’s every Canadian’s dream. Americans dream of growing up to be President; we’re content to drive the Zamboni.

Hayley cleared the rink of the little people and their penguins and Tenzin gave me guidance. I drove in an ordered pattern, careful not to slide into the plexiglass boards. I would not be lying if I told you I shouted “I’m driving the Zamboni!!” at random passer-bys, who mostly chose to ignore me. Parents waited with their small kids by the rink wondering when the weirdo would get off the cart and let them skate already.

I ended by flooring the accelerator, pulling doughnuts in the middle of the tiny rink, and laughing maniacally. I don’t know, maybe it was kind of weird. A million thanks to DD and JG for making this slice of craziness happen. ($12 entry fee, $3 skate rental)


Midtown’s Bryant Park rink has a lot going for it, besides being free: It is ample in size, generous in its siting, convenient in its location and, at this time of year, surrounded by a Christmas market and food kiosks. It opens at 7am, much earlier than any other rink, so it’s possible to catch a skate while the sun rises, before heading off to work or in lieu of a morning run.

At midday, it was busy but not crowded, filled with school kids on skates for the first time, clinging to the boards, holding hands with their besties for balance, and grinning from ear to ear. The place overflowed with happiness.

Ice skating rinks in New York City, Bryant Park Ice skating rinks in New York City, Bryant Park Ice skating rinks in New York City, Bryant Park Ice skating rinks in New York City, Bryant Park Ice skating rinks in New York City, Bryant Park Ice skating rinks in New York City, Bryant Park


Just seven blocks up 5th Avenue from Bryant Park, Rockefeller Centre, home of the world’s most famous skating rink, is world’s away in its experience.

I’m not a big fan of crowds, and this area of midtown, the epicentre of consumerism, is crazed at this time of the year. Turning onto 49th, I felt my mood souring. By the time I reached the rink, encircled and smothered in people, I was in a New York State of Mind, and not in a good way. Down the stairs I pressed, towards the tiny ticket office and a young staff member indifferent to my questions. 12:30pm – 45 minutes away – was the next open slot, and I wasn’t prepared to wait amidst the crowds for an opportunity to skate on a postcard-sized rink for $30 plus a bag check. It was less about the money and more about the opposite of happiness that was creeping up my gullet.

I turned and pushed my way back up the stairs, my patience and manners lost in the rush. I headed towards 6th and up to Central Park. I needed some space far more than I needed to scratch Rockefeller rink off my list.


Sixth Avenue ends at Central Park. I crossed 59th, avoiding the pedicab and horse drawn carriage solicitations, and headed straight into the park, curving slightly to the left, and then gently to the right. In just a few moments, the Trump Rink – or Wollman as everyone still calls it –  appeared below, sheltered in a shallow bowl. Of course it is a perfect place for a skating rink; nothing in Central Park is left to chance.

Ice skating rinks in New York City, Wollman Rink, Central Park

The skaters of all ages, shapes and sizes flit about in dark contrast and long shadows against the sparkling white ice. The sun dominates the highrises, creating a fuzzy white light that mutes the buildings and trees, easing their outlines against the sky. I look away and see the vivid sharpness of the winter sky; I face the sun and am draped in a veil of dreaminess.

It costs $11.25 for an adult to skate during the week, but it is Friday afternoon and, apparently, Friday afternoon is really the weekend, and so it is $18 even and $6 for a locker rental. No music blares; the sounds are of laughter and delightful conversation and a little traffic if you listen really closely. I can best describe them as the sounds of gratitude: for the sunny day, the rosy cheeks, the joy of being alive, of learning something new, of an old or new body moving, even slowly at first.

I could stay here all day but I am pulled by a schedule and other desires, as I always am. I trade a visit to the Lasker Rink at 110th in the Bronx for a short visit to the Anna Wintour Costume Center at the Met to see Death Becomes Her and try hard to not think about what I’ve missed. (Stay in the moment, stay in the moment, stay in the moment and you will know you’ve made a good trade.)

I head down 5th with my magical skates thrown over my shoulder, and so many strangers smile in recognition. I toss them under the table in the bar where Husband and I sit down for a drink and they are a conversational opener.

“I’ve skated the city,” I tell Lisa and Charlie, who have inquired about my adventures. I give them my card and tell them this very story.


The Ghosts of Walhachin

Arrested Developments

So there I was watching Arrested Development reruns when the Bluth family model home flashed up on screen. It’s the running gag where the turreted McMansion sits alone in desert-like surroundings, where the family lives amongst the staged bowls of plastic fruit waiting for prospective buyers who never come.

Bluth Family Model Home

And I laugh, of course, because it’s cringeworthy that anyone would build – not to mention live – in a house in the middle of nowhere, a folly of stranded infrastructure. Then I realize I’ve recently seen this very thing, and reality is much less funny than its fictional counterpart.

Pedestrian crossing
Traffic management with closed-circuit cameras
Lots (and lots) for sale

Flashback to our summer of 2014 cross-Canada family vacation and we’re driving one of my favourite scenic stretches of Highway 1. I have travelled this route since I was a kid, so I know this planned subdivision lies not far from the ghost town of Walhachin, originally conceived as a community for titled Englishmen in 1909.

Despite the fact that Walhachin lies in the center of British Columbia’s dry belt, replete with sagebrush and rattlesnakes, American entrepreneur Charles E. Barnes envisioned thousands of acres of lush orchards and a luxury community of gentlemen farmers with fine accommodations, a Chinese laundry, servants, polo grounds, a skating rink, a swimming pool and tennis courts. It would become a cultural haven in the midst of the Canadian wilderness, closed to outsiders who didn’t meet social expectations.

The Walhachin Hotel, 1910
Excavating the irrigation ditch at Walhachin, 1910
Barnes, working with the London-based British Columbia Development Association Ltd., and supported by a successful advertising campaign, sold the subdivided properties, many sight unseen, many without an adequate water supply or sufficiently arable soil.  By 1914, Walhachin boasted 300 inhabitants.

But two absolutes would bring about its rapid demise.

Although the Thompson River flowed below, it was neither technologically nor economically feasible to pump water uphill. So residents built 12 miles of flumes to pipe water from Snohoosh Lake in the north downhill to the townsite. It was meant to be a temporary measure; a permanent solution would be installed when the growing ventures showed a profit. But the hastily-built wooden flumes were not up to the task of providing adequate water flow. Crops grew well enough but not in a high enough volume to show consistent profit. Not everyone’s water needs could be met.

Then Britain’s declaration of war against Germany in 1914 landed the fatal blow. The men headed off to fight for King and county, and many women returned to the comforts of their homeland. By 1922, no Englishmen were left in Walhachin.

Today, there are a few houses, a few fruiting trees, and a few local memory-keepers, but precious else left of the promised land. Are we so stubborn or ignorant  that we prefer not to learn from the history that lies before our very eyes?

Walhachin-2 Walhachin-3 Walhachin-4 Walhachin-5 Walhachin

Further reading:

B.C. Historian/Writer Michael Kluckner

The Short Season of High Society by Graham Chandler, Legion Magazine

Walhachin, Catastrophe or Camelot? by Joan Weir

The Age of Waterlilies by Theresa Kishkan

Uno Langmann Family Collection of B.C. Photographs, University of British Columbia


Rendering of Fleurt Chair Image: Andrew Jones Design

What a Fleurt

Excerpt from A Tale of Two Hotels: The Gladstone (Part 1), November 2011

We were lodged in Room 303, the Red Room (or the ‘REDRUM’ as I joked in my best Jack Nicholson voice), designed by Kate Austin and Kristin Ledgett of RUCKUS. It was, all at once, intimate, stylish and homey… In a strange small-world occurrence on Friday, I ended up eating downtown at the bar of the Queen Mother Cafe, corralling the only empty chair in the whole lunch-packed place.  Apparently, as I would find out while researching this entry, I had seated myself next to Andrew Jones, an award-winning architect-turned-furniture/lighting-designer.  Turns out he is the co-designer of Room 312 (Re:Fresh).  And, as I would also realize, I had transacted with Kate Austin, half of my room’s design team, when I made an early Christmas purchase at her shop The Knit Cafe that same day.  Even in such a large city, this small hotel is obviously succeeding as a magnet of art, design and culture.


Almost exactly three years later, Andrew Jones landed in my inbox with a pretty cool announcement and a feature in The New York Times. This Toronto-based furniture and lighting designer has added another award to his collection, beating out 678 other competitors with his design for a signature chair for New York City’s Battery Park. It features a petalled, curvaceous, open-flower shape and is cheekily named “Fleurt.”

Jones was awarded a $10,000 cash prize and will see 300 of the chairs, in four shades of blue, bloom on the park’s brand-new lawn as early as late 2015.

I think of the memorable hours I’ve spent in the slightly-reclined aluminum chairs of the Jardin des Tuileries in Paris, watching the world go by. Contrary to what Freud might have had to say about it, sometimes a chair is not just a chair: it’s a springboard for the imagination.

Photo credit: Fleurt rendering from Andrew Jones Design


Winnipeg: Stuck in the Middle

A couple of days ago I posted a piece trumpeting Winnipeg’s virtues and shortly after this appeared:

Of course I dove into, and discovered the book Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, photographed and written by the dynamic duo of Bryan Scott and Bartley Kives.

Thanks to the miracle of strangers on the internet and a benevolent Husband who made a run to McNally Robinson bookstore before hitting the airport, I had this book in my hands within hours of hearing about it.

Doug Holmes wasn’t kidding when he said the site (and even more so the book) “demonstrates exactly what you discuss.”  Call it synchronicity, a manifestation of the collective unconscious, a case of great minds thinking alike, or, more likely, we three are siblings separated at birth, but the zeitgeist of my 500-word essay – that Winnipeg feels like New York used to feel before it went and got all gentrified – is uncannily similar to that of their bookBut enough about me.

Wow, I say to Stuck in the Middle. Double-wow. It’s at once coffee table book, travelogue, history lesson, secret diary, social commentary, treasure map, love story, and Huck Finn adventure drawn from a place that everyone loves to hate. It nails the three things I look for in the finest non-fiction: The text is smart, lively, pointed and funny/mouthy sassy the kind of sassy that might warrant a sock in the jaw in certain kinds of mixed company; the photos are technically and creatively excellent, moving portraits of the uncommonly common; and it fills in knowledge gaps and sends me off in hitherto unknown directions.

Some of the things I discovered as a result of this book (spoiler alert!): feet James Avenue datum; salami shoulder; Tagalog is the second most widely spoken language, behind English, ahead of French; giant stone heads on appliances; the visibility of the high-water mark on buildings; surface parking is both ugly and intimidating; Garbage Hill; the influence of prominent New York architects; and how to win friends and influence people with a stellar grasp of flood-related vocabulary.

Click here for a list of retailers.

Hoping I can convince Bryan and Bartley to swap lunch for a walk around the city next time I’m in town….