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The Value of Remembering Dead Workers

A planned memorial for victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire just cleared a major hurdle in New York City government—now who’s going to pay for it?

Emily Bass
February 13, 2019
Photo: Eric Thayer/Getty Images
Family members and attendees hold up shirts bearing the names of victims at a ceremony at the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, in New York City on March 25, 2011, the 100-year anniversary of the fire.Photo: Eric Thayer/Getty Images
Photo: Eric Thayer/Getty Images
Family members and attendees hold up shirts bearing the names of victims at a ceremony at the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, in New York City on March 25, 2011, the 100-year anniversary of the fire.Photo: Eric Thayer/Getty Images

On Tuesday, Jan. 22, in a ninth-floor room at 1 Centre Street, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission voted unanimously to approve the design for a permanent memorial to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the conflagration that took place on March 25, 1911, and claimed the lives of 146 New Yorkers, many of whom were Jewish and Italian immigrant garment workers.

When Wellington Chan, executive director of the Chinatown Partnership, read the resolution for the memorial, Mary Anne Trasciatti, chair of the board of the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition, which organized the juried competition for the memorial design, grasped the hands of Uri Wegman and Richard Joon Yoo, the architectural designers.

“Aye,” the commissioners murmured in unison. With that—and a polite request from the commissioners that the room be cleared so they could go to lunch—a decade’s worth of work undertaken by the all-volunteer coalition crossed its last major hurdle.

There was nothing to mark the occasion as especially grand or politically significant. The mics in the room were wonky: The one for the public popped loudly; the commissioners’ hardly worked at all. But the vote to commemorate the shirtwaist factory fire—New York’s worst workplace disaster other than 9/11 and a pivotal event in the city’s history and the national labor movement—has political implications beyond the ceremonial. Because of the fire, “We have sprinkler systems and exit signs and the Department of Labor,” says Ed Vargas, director of labor relations in the office of the Commissioner of the New York State Department of Labor, a labor movement veteran and co-organizer of the annual commemoration of the fire.

New York’s newest congresswoman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, isn’t just a cultural phenomenon, she’s also the leading edge of a left-wing politics associated with the revived Democratic Socialists of America. Between Democratic Socialists like Cortez and Bernie Sanders, progressives like Elizabeth Warren and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, and national campaigns like the fight for a $15 minimum wage, labor issues haven’t looked this important in national politics in decades. Given all that, you might assume that a memorial landmark for an event that’s still resonant enough that it inspired an oratorio performed earlier this year at the New York Philharmonic, would be an easy vote to get through in the country’s most pro-union city. And yet, in a classic case of all politics is local and about raising money, it’s been anything but easy.

The January vote by the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) was the most significant hurdle yet cleared for advocates of the planned monument. Afterward at Maxwell’s, over drinks—a margarita for Yoo—little lamb chops and rubbery calamari, there were back slapping hugs and the profanity that sweetens victory: “We fucking won.” “We fucking did it.” Before the second round arrived, though, Trasciatti, Yoo and other coalition members had this sober reflection: There was still a lot of money to be raised.

In 2015, after an article about the coalition appeared in The New York Times, Gov. Cuomo committed $1.5 million, the capital budget for fabricating, constructing, and installing the memorial. However, NYU, which owns the Brown Building where the shirtwaist factory once stood and the new memorial is planned, requires an endowment—customary for public monuments—to cover upkeep. The price tag isn’t fixed yet, but it’s somewhere in the range of $850,000 to $1.5 million, and it all needs to be raised.

That leaves the question, with the LPC vote now out of the way, of just how much the memorial is worth to the elected officials, fashion industry, and citizens of New York.

The memorial, called “Reflecting the Sky,” incorporates a ribbon of metal that descends down the southeast corner of the Brown Building from the ninth floor to about 12 feet above street height. It splits there, and turns perpendicular to the building. The proposal calls for etching the names of all 146 victims of the fire into the ribbon. The names would be reflected, along with the sky, viewer’s faces, and city life, in a mirrored panel at waist level of the building. Commissioners called the design “delicate” and “respectful.”

Tasteful and historically important, yes, but it still needs to be paid for. “Reflecting the Sky” will be installed on private property but public money can still fund it. Prior to the 2015 commitment from Gov. Cuomo, Gale Brewer, then a city council member and now Manhattan borough president, had supported the effort. But that idea hit a snag because both the City Council and Office of the Borough President are prohibited by charter from contributing to an endowment fund. (However, their “discretionary” funds can be used for programming and the coalition is planning to apply for those to support the memorial dedication.)

When it comes to city government funders, that leaves the mayor’s office, which, in June, launched SheBuilt NYC, an initiative to address the gross gender imbalance in the city’s public memorials—there are only five public statues of historic women in the city. (Setting aside the preferred pronoun of the angel in the Bethesda Fountain, the only statue of a woman in Central Park is Alice in Wonderland.) When asked for comment on the memorial, Mayor de Blasio stated, “It is critical that we remember all facets of New York City history, even our most painful moments. This memorial will help New Yorkers honor the victims of this tragedy and recognize the roots of the modern fight for worker rights.” But before this comment came, his press office called to make sure Tablet understood the Triangle Memorial was not a part of the SheBuilt initiative. In fact, there’s no clear reason why it isn’t. A memorial to the event was among the top 20 vote-getters out of 327 nominations received as part of SheBuilt’s call for suggestions, and the initiative is open to adopting fully funded proposals. “We are currently exploring next steps for the SheBuilt initiative and will continue to reference the public submissions list in that effort,” the Mayor’s Office said.

It’s a tepid response to what seems like an easy win for a pro-labor, pro-immigrant mayor. “They could have picked the Triangle Fire memorial as part of SheBuilt, supported and promoted it, and said, let’s help get it over the finish line,” says Gina Pollara, an architect and former executive director of the Four Freedoms Monument to FDR on Roosevelt Island who has been advising the coalition since June 2018.

For now, though, the memorial—the first of its kind to working class immigrant women in New York City—isn’t part of SheBuilt, which recently announced Shirley Chisholm as its first subject.

Memorials are expensive; even as efforts like SheBuilt NYC seek, however clumsily, to redress the balance. Of course city hall can’t sponsor every privately funded or placed project. But it will be interesting to see, as labor issues return to the fore in national politics—at least symbolically—whether Mayor de Blasio, while positioning himself as a champion of workers and immigrants, offers any assistance to a project honoring some of the most famous immigrant workers in this country’s history.

Nor is the Mayor’s Office the only group that could open its pockets. Edgar Romney, secretary treasurer of Workers United, the successor union to the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, which had been trying to organize workers at the Triangle Factory at the time of the fire, has been commemorating the fire for nearly 50 years. “I’d like to see a good amount of contributions come from the labor movement,” he says. “We will be having conversations with [union-owned] Amalgamated Bank.” Also on his list: the fashion industry, workers’ pension funds, and former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who participated in the event over the years. “It’s really important that the fashion industry gets involved,” Pollara says. “We hope we’ll find a champion there to lead the charge.”

One thing that is moving forward: a collaborative project to fashion the metal ribbon that descends down the corner of the building that is 300 feet long, 2 feet wide. Yoo, co-designer Uri Wegman and the coalition are crafting a fabric ribbon of those dimensions from donated pieces that connect, in some way, to the fire, its legacy of protest, immigrant, and women’s rights. The fabric ribbon will be pieced together at a two-day event at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology on March 16 and 17 that will be open to the public. The finished product will retain the textures of the original materials for as long as the memorial stands.


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Emily Bass is the 2018-19 Martin Duberman Visiting Research Fellow at the New York Public Library, and the author of the forthcoming book The Plague War, a chronicle of America’s war on AIDS in Africa.