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The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory

March 26, 2010

Today is the 99th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire where 146 young women and men died after being locked into the factory in 1911.  This tragedy sparked a coalition of reformers, trade unionists, progressives and socialists to demand occupational safety standards.  It was the largest industrial accident in American history.

Following the article below from the New York Times by Claude Haberman is correspondence between Haberman and myself.

NYC

Choosing Not to Forget What Is Painful to Recall

By CLYDE HABERMAN
Published: March 25, 2010
  • On a street off Washington Square, a bell tolled 146 times on Thursday, once for each woman and man who died in the great fire there so very long ago. Dozens of schoolchildren read the names of the victims, one by one, then laid carnations upon a makeshift memorial. A fire truck raised its ladder in tribute but only so far — a reminder of a rescue effort that fell tragically short.

James Estrin/The New York Times

Children from Public School 361 watched a fire truck’s ladder reach the sixth floor of a building where the Triangle shirtwaist factory stood. In 1911, the ladders could go no farther to help workers on higher floors.

Everything was as it was supposed to be, 99 years to the day since a fire at the Triangle shirtwaist factory took the lives of 146 garment workers — most of them women, most of them Jewish and Italian immigrants, most of them heartbreakingly young.

The flames that engulfed the factory, on the top three floors of a building at Washington Place and Greene Street, was the most cataclysmic disaster to befall a New York workplace until Islamist fanatics turned airplanes into missiles in 2001. But even the attacks of Sept. 11 have not diminished Triangle’s central place in the consciousness of an oft-wounded city.

Like all rituals, Thursday’s remembrance of March 25, 1911, moved to a practiced rhythm. An anniversary ceremony has been held at that corner for years. Repetition, however, in no way stole from poignancy.

There were accounts of how the low-paid seamstresses who made ladies’ blouses — shirtwaists — were trapped in the blaze. How locked doors prevented many from fleeing to safety. How the firefighters’ tallest ladder reached only to the sixth floor, well below workers trying to stave off death two, three and four floors higher. How in desperation — does this sound familiar? — many jumped to their deaths.

There were speeches from labor leaders about how the disaster led to tougher safety regulations but also about how much remains undone. Locking in workers? Wal-Mart was found to have been doing that just a few years ago. Last month, in an echo of Triangle, 21 workers in Bangladesh died in a fire at a garment factory with locked exits.

And there was the mournful tolling of a firehouse bell, each ring accompanying a name, each name capturing a soul: Lizzie Adler, Rosina Cirrito, Yetta Goldstein, Gaetana Midolo, Simie Wisotsky and, every now and then, Unidentified Woman and Unidentified Man.

New York generally prefers the future tense. It is not always good at remembering.

Sept. 11 aside, anniversaries of disasters come and go with barely a nod. Until 9/11, none was deadlier than the 1904 burning of the General Slocum, a poorly equipped excursion steamboat that caught fire in Hell Gate’s waters. More than 1,000 people died, most of them women and children. Yet the anniversary, June 15, usually passes unnoticed.

Not so with the Triangle fire. If anything, the observances have been expanding and are likely to grow still more in 2011, the centennial year. Events on Thursday included programs at Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village and Christ the King Regional High School in Middle Village, Queens.

The Queens event was led by Vincent Maltese, whose older brother, Serphin, is a former state senator. For them, the Triangle fire is personal. Their grandmother and her two daughters died. The girls were 18 and 14. “My grandfather never really talked about it, except once a year,” said Vincent Maltese, 76. “He’d get moody toward the end of March.”

Perhaps the fire endures in civic memory because it has clear constituencies. It is part of the Italian-American narrative and, arguably even more so, of Jewish-American history. But there is more to it, said David Von Drehle, the author of “Triangle: The Fire That Changed America.”

Triangle “speaks to large trends — the immigrant story, the progressive political story, the labor movement story and the women’s rights story,” Mr. Von Drehle said. “It’s illustrative of all those currents, which continue to be living issues in a way that steamboat safety is not.”

For similar reasons, Ruth Sergel, a filmmaker, organizes her own memorial. On the anniversary, she leads volunteers in a project called Chalk. They visit the places where each of the 146 victims lived, mostly in the East Village and on the Lower East Side. At those locations, on the pavement, they chalk in the names and ages of those who died.

“It’s the idea of making communal memory visible,” Ms. Sergel said, describing it as “a different kind of power.”

“It’s not permanent,” she said. “It washes away. But you know what? It’s going to come back next year.”

E-mail: haberman@nytimes.com

A version of this article appeared in print on March 26, 2010, on page A19 of the New York edition.

And here is the correspondence:

Dear Mr. Haberman:

In an otherwise clear and straightforward article (NYT 03.26.10, “Choosing Not to Forget What Is Painful to Recall”) on the anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, you write:
“It is part of the Italian-American narrative and, arguably even more so, of Jewish-American history.

Why do you believe that the fire was ” arguably even more so, of Jewish-American history”? Is it because the owners of the garment company were Jewish?

Very truly yours,

Lawrence Gulotta

………………………………………………………..

From: Haberman, Clyde
To: ‘Lawrence Gulotta
Sent: Fri, Mar 26, 2010 11:55 am
Subject: RE: Triangle Fire: A comment and question

Thanks for your note, Mr. Gulotta.

Because the Triangle workers, and the fire victims, were mostly Jewish — and because the ILGWU was essentially Jewish in character back then and for decades to follow — the shirtwaist fire has been woven into fabric of Jewish life in America far more than it has been in the Italian-American experience. I’m quite familair with both of those ethnic worlds, and this is a simple fact. There’s no judgment made here about it.

Thank you again, and best,
Clyde Haberman

………………………………………………………..

Dear Mr. Haberman:
Thank you for your reply to my question. I wish to note that other journalists from the New York Times have expressed a more nuanced view. For example, Michael Molyneux’s “Memorials in Chalk”, April 3, 2005 notes, “

SONIA WISOTSKY, Nicolina Nicolosci, Yetta Rosenbaum. … These women were among the 146 workers who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, New York’s most infamous disaster before the attacks of Sept. 11. Their names, all but forgotten today, suggest the ethnic melting pot that was New York of 1911. Ten days ago, they surfaced again, in the ephemeral form of chalk on pavement as the names and ages of the victims, close to half of whom were teenagers, were inscribed in front of their former homes. ”

Adver

Molyneux uses the time-honored idea of an “ethnic melting pot” to describe the ethnic composition of the victims of this terrible tradegy,Polish, Italian and Jewish.
Regarding the ILGWU, its membership was an ethnic melting pot, too. Without cross-ethnic solidarity, the mostly Jewish leadership of the ILGWU, would not have been as successful as it was in achieving economic and social improvement for its members. I recall viewing photographs of early strikes and picket lines hung on the walls of the ILGWU conference room where I attended a meeting of young labor activists, during the early 1970s.  The strikers displayed picket signs in Italian, Yiddish, Polish and English. The photos were from the early 20th century.
Let’s not over look ILGWU’s Local 48, headed by Luigi Antoninni. Of course, if you wish to dig deeper, you will notice a plaque commemorating the Italian anarchist labor leader and prominent anti-fascist Carlo Tresca, located on E 15th Street corner of  Fifth Avenue.
The point is that the labor movement is and was “multi-ethnic.” The victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire were a ethnic melting pot of New Yorkers from 1911. On my way back from lunch today, I noticed a chalked tribute on the sidewalk at 2nd Avenue and E 54th Street. It was in memory of “Betty Viviano.”
I’m not sure why you need to maintain that “the shirtwaist fire has been woven into fabric of Jewish life in America far more than it has been in the Italian-American experience.”
Best wishes,
Lawrence Gulotta
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