Groups of men, women and children lined rows of tables, hand-sewing swatches of colorful fabric together at the Fashion Institute of Technology earlier this month. They were creating a crucial part of the long-anticipated memorial to the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, the 1911 disaster that killed 146 people, 123 of them women.
Many of those women were Jewish immigrants from Russia, Austria, or Italy, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Their deaths were largely avoidable, and the fire led to new era in workplace safety regulations. The tragedy also called attention to the dreadful working conditions in many American factories.
Rosie and KatieNine years ago, after the fire’s Centennial, the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition began plans for a permanent memorial at the site of the fire, at 29 Washington place, which is now New York University’s Brown Building. Suzanne Pred Bass is on the executive board of the coalition and is the great-niece of two women, Rosie and Katie Weiner, who were caught in the fire. Katie survived, but Rosie died.
“[The memorial] is so that Rosie not be forgotten, and that there is meaning brought to this event,” Bass said. “That her senseless death, easily avoidable except for the greed and the negligence of the factory owners, is honored and remembered in a way that carries meaning into this century.”
The Tragedies ContinueCoalition members hope this memorial will be a symbol to remind people that the working conditions of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire are an ongoing global issue. Events such as the 2012 Dhaka fire in Bangladesh, which killed at least 117, and the 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse, also in Bangladesh, which killed 1,134, galvanized the coalition members during the long process of creating the memorial. Temma Kaplan, a retired history professor from Rutgers University, emphasized why people in the United States need to feel responsible for workers’ rights both at home and abroad. “Those of us who wear clothing from factories in Bangladesh, factories in Asia, or from very poor places in Central Europe, nobody thinks about what we owe to the people who make these things,” Kaplan said. “When we hear about a big fire in Bangladesh we feel bad it happened, but we don’t recognize the connection we have to that event.”
A Design Full of MeaningThe coalition sponsored a design competition in 2013 and chose a collaborative work by architects Richard Joon Yoo and Uri Wegman. The design entails metal bands spanning two sides of the NYU Brown building, etched with the names of the victims of the fire. At ground level, there will be an engraving telling the story of the fire, and a panel reflecting the names above and the faces of visitors reading the engraving. When visitors reach the end of the story, there will be a metal ribbon ascending above them to the ninth floor. Yoo plans for the memorial to immerse people in the experience.
“This gesture of looking down to read the story and then looking up to see the height of the memorial is literally a retracing of the witnessing of the fire,” Yoo said. The memorial is scheduled to open next March.
This desire to advocate for those who are still expected to work in dangerous conditions is why coalition members, descendants of the victims and others gathered in the John E. Reeves Great Hall at FIT. The 340-foot fabric assemblage they sewed together will become the texture for the metal ribbon stretching to the ninth floor of the memorial. The pieces of fabric and the hand-written explanations of their significance, will be preserved by Cornell University’s Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation & Archives.
Daniel Levinson Wilk, professor of American History at FIT, joined the coalition after the Triangle centennial and recognizes the importance of bringing the project to the Institute. “These issues are going to be very important to our students when they go out into the workplace,” Wilk said. “They’re going to be the ones making the decisions that affect whether working conditions are safe or not. And so it’s important to us here at FIT that we involve our students and faculty with this project.”
Her Grandmother’s LaceAnnie Lanzillotto is a member of the coalition and the creative mind behind many of the organization’s initiatives, including creating paper shirtwaist kites to fly over the crowd as the group marched in the 2018 labor day parade. She spent the weekend sewing pieces of clothing, lace, flowers, and other symbolic pieces from her grandmother and mother onto the communal fabric to be a part of the memorial. Her grandmother worked as a finisher in the garment district after immigrating through Ellis Island from Italy. “To sit here, to work with my friends, sewing with them,” Lanzillotto said, “with fabrics from our grandmothers and mothers, and thread from them, thread from our aunts and grandmothers, it’s really beautiful.”