See You in the Streets: Unsung American Heroines

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After seeing young women die in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, Frances Perkins fought to improve the lives of American workers. Photo via wikipedia.org.

Frances Perkins served as U.S. Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945.  Perkins was the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet and served longest in that position.  She worked with FDR throughout his entire presidency to improve conditions for American workers.

Perkin’s passion and dedication for her work were linked directly with the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.  This tragedy left 146 women dead in a work accident in downtown New York City on March 25, 1911.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, located just off Washington Square, was a garment factory producing shirtwaists,a type of elegant button-down blouse with rows of tiny and elaborate tucks.  The shirtwaist was favored by New York women as a symbol of the chic modernity.  But the silhouette of fashionable ladies came at a price paid by their downtrodden sisters, immigrant women living in the city’s tenements.  These newest New York women worked long hours for low wages in the city’s notorious sweatshops.

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The fashionable New York woman was dressed in a sweeping skirt and shirtwaist. Picture via wikipedia.org.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was one such garment factory producing shirtwaists. Workers at Triangle were considered fortunate as the factory was better than the brutal tenement sweatshops.  Such a large and successful company was not likely to lay off workers during slow periods.  Located on the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of the Asch Building (now owned by NYU and known as the Brown Building), the women worked long hours for low wages seated behind cramped rows of sewing machines and surrounded by baskets of fabric, oil soaked machinery, flying thread and cotton scraps.

On March 25th, with the promise of spring and renewal in the air, tragedy struck.  A fire broke out, quickly consuming the factory in flames and killing 146 workers, mostly Italian and Jewish women living in tenements in downtown New York.

 

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Forthcoming June 2016, University of Iowa Press.

In a bid to save their lives, some of the women fled to the factory’s single fire escape.  The structure collapsed under their weight, spilling the women to the sidewalk below.  When the fire company arrived, their ladders only reached the 6th story.  In a desperate bid to save their lives, women jumped, hoping to grasp the ladders below.  As the flames grew higher, groups of women, often family members, joined hands and leapt to the deaths, ending their lives on the sidewalks below.  Spectators who had been out enjoying the afternoon in Washington Square Park watched in horror as the women jumped, fell and crumpled on the pavement.  Frances Perkins was among the reluctant audience members to the spectacle that day.  She vowed to work to ensure such a performance was never repeated.

 

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Image courtesy Kheel Center for Labor Management, Documentation and Archives, Cornell University Library.

The deaths of those 146 New York women galvanized a movement for social and economic justice.  Led by Frances Perkins, American workers  achieved standards that become a model for the world. But today’s laborers continue to battle dire working conditions.  The question now:  How can we bring the lessons of the Triangle fire back into practice today?

Those sidewalks near Washington Square Park, where the bodies of women lay broken, provided the answer for New York artist, Ruth Sergel, who grew up near the site of the Triangle Fire.  For Sergel, the answer to renewing the lessons of those 146 deaths has been to fuse art, activism, and collective memory to create a large-scale public commemoration.   See You in the Streets, Sergel’s forthcoming coming book,  documents her efforts to devise memorials for the Triangle Fire that invite broad participation and incite civic engagement.

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Alexandra Wang chalks Maria Tortorelli of Thompson Street, March 25, 2015. Photo by Kim Dramer

Sergel’s public art intervention, Chalk, extends an invitation to all New Yorkers to remember the 146 victims of the fire by inscribing their names and ages in chalk in front of their former homes each March 25th. Using the sidewalks of New York as their medium, Chalk celebrates the lives of these New York women rather than their deaths in what Sergel calls a “community intervention.”  For one day each year, the lives of these New York women, their hopes and dreams, come alive once again, linking their lives with our own.

Chalk is an informal network of participants that has grown through word of mouth, press coverage or simply those who seeing the project in the streets have sought out more information.  Sergel sums up the yearly efforts:  “The chalk will wash away but the following year we return, insisting on the memory of these lost young workers.”

To participate in Chalk, go to Ruth Sergel’s web site streetart.org.

 

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