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Monday, March 21, 2011

A Triangle Anniversary

This week is the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the top few floors of the 10-story Asch Building at 29 Washington Place, Manhattan, killing 146 of the 500 employees of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. The victims were mostly young women, some of whom were young teenagers and most of whom were recent Jewish immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe.

Many of us know this tragedy by heart -- the poor conditions, the locked doors, the manslaughter trial, the acquittal, State Representative (and later Governor) Al Smith and the State Factory Investigating Committee -- and some of us New Yorkers may have even lost relatives. I remember standing at the base of the old Asch Building (now, I think, an NYU property) and realizing that I stood where the bodies of young girls once lied. It was chilling.

A few questions about the post-tragedy gatherings AFTER THE JUMP.

I would like to talk about the post-fire gatherings at the Metropolitan Opera House and then at Washington Sqaure Park some days later. Some reporters and historians called the Opera House meeting a "memorial" or "protest" or "community shivah" depending on their political predilections. The word shiv'ah is the Hebrew term for the week long period of mourning after the loss of a loved one. According to Leon Stein's definitive (although decidedly left-leaning) history of the fire, the meeting of women, Jews, socialists and more than a smattering of men was all things to all people. Rose Schneiderman and the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union did their share of rabble rousing, but Morris Rosenfeld, a poet, also gave a long and sorrowful dirge about the tragedy.

Little is known about Mayor William Gaynor's decision-making process during this time, although it is notable that Representative Smith took more initiative to meet the families in the tenements than Mayor Gaynor. The mayor and his police department approved two "mourning marches" to commemorate the victims, one from uptown down to Washington Square and the other from downtown up to Washington Sqaure. It must have been quite a sight. New York's immigrant women and labor force met and milled about Washington Square until the police chief worried that too many workers in one place would cause an eruption of sorrow, hysteria and violence. He changed the route of the downtown procession to meet the uptown march at the decidedly less mass-gathering friendly upper Fifth Avenue.

I wonder if our cities have changed their approaches to labor protests since 1911. New York City allowed the dual marches, but it took away Washington Square, the classic town square where anti-establishment speakers could literally bring soap boxes and spout off on this or that topic. Mr. Stein's text speaks of elderly women, dressed right out of the Old World shtetl, taking young girls under their coats to protect them from the rain while letting them get views of the Asch building and the crowds. Clearly, there were thousands of men there, some of whom were undoubtedly angry. And, while we know that local authorities have a compelling interest in putting reasonable restrictions on marches and protests in order the protect the public safety, do we not run the risk of constructively muting protests or any public gathering when we give city officials cart blanche to take away the best gathering places. Should the status of the "town square" matter more?

Posted by Ari Ezra Waldman on March 21, 2011 at 10:59 PM | Permalink


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"...where the bodies of young girls once lay."

Posted by: Jimbino | Mar 22, 2011 10:05:52 AM

Indeed. Apologies for any unintentional omission.

Posted by: Ari Ezra Waldman | Mar 21, 2011 11:47:54 PM

It bears noting that those victims who were not Jewish were recent Italian immigrants, and while they were not a majority, there was still a substantial number of them.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Mar 21, 2011 11:09:55 PM

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