Lady Liberty welcomes visitors again

Despite new concerns about national security, the statue is to reopen to the public Tuesday.

As Willi casts his fishing line out into New York harbor, he stops and admires Lady Liberty standing in the distance framed by clouds pink from a setting sun, her torch glowing like a star.

"The Lady is alive," says the longtime New Yorker, who spends most of his evenings fishing here in Battery Park. "It means she's come back to life."

Tuesday, for the first time since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Statue of Liberty will re-open to the public.

A symbol of hope to millions of Americans and others around the world for generations, the reopening of the statue itself after almost three years comes amid renewed security fears and controversy over the nonprofit charity that solicits money for its upkeep.

But neither terrorist threats nor alleged financial mismanagement has lessened enthusiasm for America's Lady.

Conceived after the Civil War she was originally a symbolic tribute to America casting off the chains of slavery. But it took 20 years to sculpt her and build her base, and by then she came to stand for hope and freedom to the huge immigration waves that washed across the Atlantic from Europe. And now, in the shadow of 9/11, she's taken yet another significance.

"This reopening symbolizes American defiance in the face of terror," says Kathleen Hulser, public historian at the New-York Historical Society. "It's also a defiance against the challenges to public spaces presented by terrorism."

But heightened security concerns have also changed Lady Liberty, and people's access to her.

Tourists now have to go through metal detectors and security screening before they board the Circle Line boats that bring them to her island. And once there, access to the statue itself is limited. Reservations are needed for a guided tour through the base, followed by more security checks. Once inside, people will be greeted by the original torch that lit up the harbor in the late 19th century. (It was replaced when the statue was restored for her centennial.) There are exhibits and history lessons, and a look-out on top of the pedestal that towers 16 stories above New York Harbor.

But instead of being able to climb up the long, narrow winding stairs to peer out through Liberty's eyes across the harbor and Manhattan to the vast country beyond, visitors will now only be able to glance up through a thick glass ceiling at the intricate lattice structure that keeps her standing.

That's disappointing for many, like Rich Presutti, who was walking his Boston terrier, Emma, along the promenade that overlooks the harbor. For him, having only the base open is just not the same thing.

"When I was a little kid, that's when it started getting dilapidated, we used to go up to the top - you still couldn't go into the arm to the torch, but you could go and look out the face," he says. "That was really neat."

For many Americans and tourists from around the world, like Vita Chrabascz from Poland, it's still "neat" just to be able to stand on the island and gaze up at her - although he does have a reservation to get inside this week.

And the Department of the Interior, which is responsible for the upkeep and safety of the statue, is confident no one will be disappointed.

"When we open the doors to the monument tomorrow there will be a new exhibit, as well as a breathtaking view from the observatory," says Dan DeBray, an Interior Department spokesman.

The changes were made to "guarantee the safety of citizens and the preservation of the statue," according to Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton.

It invested more than $19 million in the project over the past two years for the new stairways, fire systems, and exits have been installed around the base. The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation also raised more than $7 million for the renovations.

That foundation, which was established in 1982 to raise money for the statue's original restoration, has been criticized for being loose with its purse strings - in particular for not using any of its $30 million endowment for the renovations and paying its executives excessive salaries.

Last week, Congressional investigators also concluded the foundation had done a poor job of overseeing the millions of dollars it collected.

But that has not affected the thousands of Americans looking forward to visiting this week, once Lady Liberty opens up. To them, the event resonates far deeper than any financial scandal.

"It's a sign of healing," says Don Carroll of Salt Lake City. "The nation is getting past that terrible time in our history and life is getting back to normal in this part of the world. It's a symbol of the United States."

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