Thompson Street, home of the Tortorelli sisters, Maria (age 33) and Isabella (age 17), who perished in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, March 25, 1911.
New York City sidewalks and chalk have been partners for generations. Setting the scene for hopscotch and stickball, chalking on the city’s pavements is a childhood ritual built into the life of young New Yorkers. Sidewalks also bear the weight of the city’s footsteps, and the hopes and dream of all New Yorkers.
Artist Ruth Sergel, founder of Chalk! , a public art project, uses the city’s pavements to honor those who perished in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, over one hundred years ago. On March 25, 1911, shortly before closing on a Saturday afternoon, a fire broke out in one of New York City’s sweatshops. That day, 146 workers died, mostly young immigrant women and girls. The youngest of the victims was fourteen years old; the oldest was forty-three years old. Each March 25th since 2004, Ruth Sergel has organized volunteers who memorialize those lives by using chalk on the city’s sidewalks, turning tragedy into dignified remembrance.
Participants in Chalk! use sidewalk chalk to write the name and age of each victim on the pavement in front of the place she lived. It’s a ritual repeated every March 25th, as Chalk! volunteers fan out across the sidewalks of New York.
To participate in Chalk! I went to Ruth’s website, http://www.streetpictures.org. Here, I found a map populated with paper doll figures marking the spot where each of the victims of the fire had lived. I was asked to pick one or two victims to honor. The names on the list spoke of women from Italy and Jews from the shtetls of Eastern Europe. On the website -map, the little figures of women clustered in Lower Manhattan. On the streets of the Lower East Side, they piled up like pieces of fabric cut out from chalked patterns that would be stitched, piece by piece, not into shirtwaists, but into stories. Each pattern would tell the story of a voyage in steerage from Europe, a life in the tenements of New York City and a beautiful American dream, waiting to be achieved.
From the list, I selected Maria Tortorelli Lauletti (age 33) and Isabella Tortorelli (age 17), two sisters living on Thompson Street, a stone’s throw from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory at Washington Square. That first year, I invited a friend to join me in Chalk! to honor these two sisters. Each year as we Chalk!, we learn something new—about Maria and Isabella—and about ourselves.
The first year of Chalk!, we imagined the walk Maria and Isabella took to work each morning. We imagined them eating lunch in Washington Square in late March, a time when New York weather can carry the promise of good times to come. We imagined them stopping briefly at St. Anthony of Padua church on Sullivan Street to light a candle or say a quick prayer. We imagined how some of their prayers involved giving thanks for finding work together in a building so modern that it even had an elevator. But most of all that first year of Chalk!, we thought of these two lives, cut short in the horrible events of March 25, 1911. By the end of that afternoon, our hands were covered with the dust of colored chalk. We transferred traces of that chalk onto our faces as we wiped away our tears.
The next year, as the details of their lives were revealed, we latched on to the hopes and dreams of the sisters for their new lives in America. Maria, we learned, was a widow with five children. We looked at the façade of the building at 133 Thompson Street. We wondered: Which windows were hers? What hopes were in the daydreams of her children as they looked out those windows to the streets below, where now, we chalked their mother’s name in a green triangle on the sidewalk? As we finished chalking at 116 Thompson Street, where Isabella had lived with her parents, we wondered if she had a fiancé or a boyfriend. When the tragedy struck, was she setting aside her wages for a new life and family of her own?
Last year, returning to Chalk! on Thompson Street, the store owners recognized and welcomed us: “Look, it’s the Tortorelli sisters again. We’ve been expecting you.” We left our coats and bags in one store and set to work with our bucket of colored sidewalk chalk. At the end of the exercise, we felt, once again, a sense of connection with these two lives that were lost over one hundred years ago.
What was so special for us was that it was on this latest March 25th, it was the LIVES of the two sisters we remembered ; not the deaths. We remembered Isabella and Maria Tortorelli as women of courage, women of vision, women of determination, women of hard work and perseverance. The sisters were, we told each other, “a couple of really great New York women.” For one day, until passing footsteps and rain washed the chalk from the sidewalk on Thompson Street, their lives were part of our city again. Their hopes and dreams lived again in the sound of footsteps, walking over colored chalk, on the sidewalks of New York.
Kim Dramer teaches at the Gabelli School of Business at Fordham University. She now corresponds via email with Mary Ann Hacker, a great-granddaughter of Maria Tortorelli Lauletti, who lives in Arizona and works as a seamstress.