The Triangle Fire: 100 Years of Coming Together on the Lower East Side
On March 25, 1911, in the span of 20 minutes, 146 people lost their lives to a fire that swept through one of New York’s largest garment shops. Almost all of the victims were young women, some literally just girls. Most who died were greenhorns, new immigrants, who didn’t know better or have any choice but to work there. Typically they worked with relatives or people from their hometowns (landsleit) who had recruited them. Two-thirds were Jewish; the other third were Italian and, of course, all who worked there were poor.
One other thing the victims had in common was that they mainly lived in the immigrant neighborhoods of the Lower East Side and in Little Italy so they could save carfare. It’s not surprising that the Fire’s victims are well remembered in that part of New York, where I live. Crossing the threshold to leave my building on a bleary March 25th morning in 2004, I felt that I had been suddenly pulled back to a time and a space transformed by the demands of the dead. Chalked onto the sidewalk and literally brought home to me were the name, address, and age of someone who until that moment had been an anonymous victim of the Triangle Fire. She lived where I lived, although the address didn’t exactly match mine; her building had been torn down when my building went up in 1929. But she could have been from my family or from the towns that they left behind, since, like many others, my relatives had come from Galicia to live in the Lower East Side’s tenements and work in its sweatshops. It could have been the name of the mother of my elderly next-door neighbor who had at age 16 survived the fire.
The resonance of this story with a new generation is what is allowing the 100th anniversary to be marked in such strong, creative, and yes, inspiring ways in New York and around the country. Here on the Lower East Side, new generations come together to remember this history with art, music, theater, poetry, and prayer.
The Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition has been working on pulling together a series of events, sponsored by very different sorts of organizations. The traditional heirs of the Fire were family members, the Jewish and Italian immigrant communities, unionists, and fire fighters who shared in the outrage that the disaster was preventable. Newer heirs include global anti-sweatshop activists working on “No More Fire” campaigns in Bangladesh, feminists, artists, architects, and many others who want to commemorate this anniversary with cultural and political events. For some, the focus is on creating a permanent memorial near the site of the Fire on the NYU campus. There has also been a nationwide call for synagogues to mark this 100th yurtzeit (anniversary of death) with kaddish and other rituals.
Here's a link to my Picasa slides which show some of the new activities. Four of these photos are currently on display in the exhibition, “Art, Memory, Place: Commemorating the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire,” at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery until March 26 and again April 12 –July 9, 2011.
Yenta Laureate of the Lower East Side has spent most of her life living in various Jewish communites which helps create a certain amount of cynicism about that which she knows and loves best. Her photos can be seen here.