On Friday, New Yorkers will pause to remember the 146 people who perished in the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Greenwich Village 100 years ago. But commemorations have actually been taking place for several days. On Sunday, the Henry Street Settlement held a tea and reception in memory of the fire victims — and to reflect on the changes that have occurred in the labor movement during the past century.
The organization’s executive director, David Garza, said, “We are hosting this tea to acknowledge Henry Street’s early support of the rights of women and workers and because so many of the victims lived on the Lower East Side and surely took part in Henry Street’s programs.”
Participants heard from Vivian Sorenson, whose grandmother, Sarah, was employed in the factory but whose life was spared because she missed work the day of the fire to help in her family’s dry cleaning business. Lower East Side historian Joyce Mendelsohn also spoke. “We are here today to remember those poor souls who lost their lives 100 years ago in a fire sparked by indifference and greed,” she said.
Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer made an appearance, as well, telling members of the audience the Triangle anniversary is an appropriate time for New Yorkers to re-commit themselves to worker rights, even as conservative zealots vilify unions and the labor movement.
There are many observances planned on Friday. The Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition has assembled a complete list of events. Here’s some of what you can expect on the Lower East Side this week:
- The theatrical company, America-in-Play, presents “Fire Escape” at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, at 630pm tonight. This new work exploring the lives of the workers trapped by the fire juxtaposes the plight of the workers against Bertha the Sewing Machine Girl, a popular iconic figure of the time, to examine the tension between idealized work conditions in America, and the reality in the sweatshops. Reservations are recommended.
- Wednesday night, also at the Tenement Museum, author and journalist David Von Drehle discusses American labor conditions before and after the fire, New York’s deadliest industrial disaster. Von Drehle wrote the definitive social history of the tragedy, “Triangle: The Fire That Changed America.” The event begins at 630pm.
- On Friday at 7pm, the Cooper Union and Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition will recreate a Memorial Meeting in The Great Hall featuring art, music, poetry and storytelling. The event will include: music from New York Labor Chorus and Metropolitan Klezmer — and poetry from NYC youth poets.
- On Sunday, the Museum at Eldridge Street hosts an afternoon of music and poetry inspired by the conditions of the sweatshops and the tragic fire with actors portraying the 146 people who perished. The event will be moderated by Yiddishist Caraid O’Brien and musicians Deborah Strauss and Jeff Warschauer. 3pm/tickets: $20.
A couple of other resources we wanted to mention. First, the Triangle Fire Open Archive, a comprehensive and evolving web site that seeks to tell the stories of the Triangle fire through multi-faceted community contributions. Second, a special edition of The Forward. In addition to new reporting on Triangle’s legacy, the web site contains 25 translated articles that appeared in the Forward in the aftermath of the fire.