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A symbol of hope

Statue of Liberty retains significance despite closure after 9/11

By Greg Botelho
CNN

This famous 1918 aerial picture of 18,000 U.S. soldiers in an Iowa field was one of many images that popularized the Statue of Liberty as a symbol of patriotism.
This famous 1918 aerial picture of 18,000 U.S. soldiers in an Iowa field was one of many images that popularized the Statue of Liberty as a symbol of patriotism.

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NEW YORK (CNN) -- Days before America's 227th birthday, federal officers carrying automatic rifles strolled around the Statue of Liberty, the nation's distinctive monument to freedom that gazes out over New York Harbor.

"It's a sight to see an armed guard walking on the [grounds of the statue]," said Holly Nechochea, 34, of Palm Springs, California, upon visiting the monument in June. "It's a sad state of affairs."

More than 100 years after its dedication, the famous plaque featuring the words of poet Emma Lazarus -- "Give me your tired, your poor,/ your huddled masses yearning to breathe free" -- sits unseen inside the statue's museum.

Like the pedestal, observation deck, staircase, art gallery and gift shop, the museum has been shuttered since September 11, 2001, and will not reopen until "visitor safety and other issues are addressed," says National Park Service spokesman Brian Feeney.

As it is, visitors can only stroll outside the statue and are not permitted to climb up to its crown, as they were before. All this comes despite an array of new security measures and the reopening of most other major monuments.

"Nine-eleven shut this [country] down," said Robert Hughes, 43, of Boston, Massachusetts, during a recent visit to the statue. "I feel more violated than anything because [the statue] used to be free, but it's no longer free. To me, that's a travesty."

The monument has long evoked strong feelings -- often as a symbol of patriotism, freedom and aesthetic and technical savvy -- particularly in tough times, said National Park Service historian Barry Moreno.

The tumultuous last two years mark but another stage in the statue's evolution as a precious and pivotal piece of Americana, according to historian Alan Kraut.

"The monument may be stationary, but its significance is malleable," said Kraut, a history professor at American University. "At the moment, the statue serves as a symbol of American liberty and openness to immigrants. The wave of patriotic feeling has only enhanced its meaning."

'A token of friendship' from France

While the World Trade Center used to dominate the view, Liberty Island visitors can still take in an impressive panorama of the New York City skyline.
While the World Trade Center used to dominate the view, Liberty Island visitors can still take in an impressive panorama of the New York City skyline.

Years after its 1886 dedication, Americans viewed the statue primarily as a gift from America's loyal ally, France.

The monument "was a symbol of two nations who really love and appreciate liberty," said Jeffrey Lenorovitz, president of the French-American Chamber of Commerce.

"Here in America, it has [since become] only a symbol of liberty," added a spokesman for the French Embassy in Washington. "It's no longer a token of friendship."

The association between the monument and France continued through World War I. At that time, and during World War II, the U.S. government issued war bonds, painted warships and printed posters and other items with the Statue of Liberty's likeness, thereby linking her closely with nationalism.

Mass media -- in films, radio and advertisements to hawk everything from lamps to soap -- further magnified the statue's popularity and image as an American symbol.

"Everyone knows that everyone likes the Statue of Liberty," Moreno said. "It doesn't matter what you say about your product ... if the Statue of Liberty is there, then it's OK to have it."

Long admired for its aesthetics and size (it was the Western Hemisphere's tallest structure in 1886), the monument also became a signpost for sailors and aviators. Wilbur Wright, of Wright Brothers fame, circled the monument in 1909 -- 94 years before a jet airliner carrying U.S. troops from Iraq stirred fears in New York after it buzzed by the statue in May.

While the monument's initial ties to immigration were tenuous, despite its proximity to Ellis Island, the connection grew as films, textbooks and tourist tales increasingly linked Lazarus' portrayal of the "Mother of Exiles" to the monument, said Moreno.

By 1945, the statue "had replaced Uncle Sam and other iconographic symbols for the United States," said Kraut, head of the Immigration and Ethnic History Society and a member of the statue's history committee. "It became a symbol of America's commitment to freedom and individual liberty as well as its openness -- a sort of welcoming sign."

New meaning in post-9/11 world

Dedicated in 1886, Lady Liberty has evolved from a symbol of Franco-American friendship to one of nationalism and freedom.
Dedicated in 1886, Lady Liberty has evolved from a symbol of Franco-American friendship to one of nationalism and freedom.

After Hitler's defeat, the statue continued to gain favor as the U.S. government framed it in the context of a new enemy: communists. The Cold War's end didn't diminish the statue's popularity, with a record 2 million people -- many from abroad -- visiting in 2000, said the park's public affairs office.

"It represents the whole idea of freedom, liberty and, to transfer it to today, democratic governments," said Harry Hamacher, a German native who visited the statue in June.

Everything changed September 11. Soon after the attacks, several Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island ferries began shuttling people from Lower Manhattan to safety, and concerns mounted that the statue -- representing U.S. ideals just as the World Trade Center symbolized American commerce -- could be next. Authorities implemented tight security measures, with air and Coast Guard patrols, airport-style security for those heading to Liberty Island and armed guards.

The number of tourists fell (as happened throughout New York), but interest in the statue swelled. Park officials received a flood of calls, tokens and poems, and President Bush chose the statue as the all-American backdrop for his address on the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks.

"It definitely meant more after [September 11] as a symbol of freedom and liberty," said Nick Novak, 24, of Chicago, Illinois, during a June visit to the monument.

This resurgence has precedent, Moreno said. The statue's public profile also had increased during the world wars, Great Depression and other difficult periods, he said. The monument's symbolism might differ each time, for each person, but its role as a source of strength, idealism and optimism remains constant.

"Americans have retreated more and more to the Statue of Liberty in dire moments," Moreno said. "The statue is a symbol of hope, something you turn to for consolation."


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