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Remembering the Triangle Fire

Chalkers will revisit the homes of three local victims on Sunday.

While the whimsical chalk drawings of children in Carroll Park are an everyday occurrence, Carroll Gardens residents should take note of some very somber markings being made by adults on designated streets this weekend.

They are a map to the past.

In memory of the 146 victims of the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire on March 25, 1911, CHALK volunteers will be fanning out across the city to inscribe in chalk the names and ages of the victims in front of their former homes, including 160 Columbia Street, 81 Degraw Street and 104 President Street.

One chalker, Sarah Vitanza Northshield, 36, will be coming in from Garnerville, N.Y. in Rockland County to make her markings at 160 Columbia Street.

"This is my first chalking," said Northshield, a librarian, who found out about the project while reading Flesh And Blood So Cheap. "It's easy for people to forget something that happened yesterday, let alone over 100 years ago."

The Triangle Waist Company was located one block east of Washington Square Park and maintained 500 employees—most young women immigrants. On March 25, 1911 a fire broke out on the 8th floor of the factory and, through a series of events and terrible working conditions, many lives were lost. The fire escape on the 8th floor collapsed, dropping some to their death. On the 9th floor, a critical exit was locked, leading workers to jump from the windows. Fire truck ladders only reached the 6th floor. Workers stuffed themselves into elevator cars, some tumbling down the shaft.

When the blaze was finally contained, 146 people had died. It inspired a rallying cry for fair labor practices and many of our fire safety laws were created in response to the tragic event.

"This will be my 3rd year chalking," said Sarah Woodbury, an 8th grade Social Studies teacher who stumbled across the project while researching information about the Triangle fire for her class.

"It personalizes the Triangle fire for me," said Woodbury, a Park Slope resident who will be chalking at 81 Degraw Street this year. "They are no longer just the 146 victims, they are Frances and Bettina Maiale, Gaetana Midolo, and Michelina Cordiano. I picture them waking up in the morning in the homes where I'm chalking and going off to work on the morning of the fire, not knowing what would happen to them in a matter of hours. It's incredibly sad, but also very meaningful."

Because of the changing nature of the city, Woodbury added, sites of famous events often go unnoticed as people are rushing around. The CHALK project is one way to get New Yorkers to slow down and consider the history surrounding them.

Ruth Sergel started CHALK in 2004 and coordinates pairing volunteer chalkers with the sites of the deceased. "One thing that has always struck me about the narrative of the Triangle fire is this," Sergel said. "Just over a year before the fire there was a huge strike by the shirtwaist makers, the Uprising of 20,000.

"For a short time many folks supported the young rabble rousers," Sergel went on. "But then, folks drifted away and the strikers were forced to settle. When the Triangle fire sent these young workers out of the ninth story windows, many New Yorkers were vividly faced with the consequences of not standing up for justice. Today we face similar issues on a global scale."

Sergel believes that CHALK is a challenge to publicly stand up for something you believe in. Longtime chalker Jude Calder agreed with that sentiment.

"CHALK is not only about memorializing the victims of that tragedy," added Calder, a Prospect Heights resident who will be making her ninth annual chalking at 104 President Street. "It brings awareness to the ongoing, world-wide struggle for fair and just labor practices that is very much with us today. Just last year, in a garment factory in Bangladesh, a fire killed 29 workers and injured over 100 more because emergency exit doors and stairway gates were locked. The similarity with the Triangle fire is chilling."

For more information on memorials related to the Triangle fire taking place this weekend, visit http://rememberthetrianglefire.org/.

Jenny March 23, 2012 at 03:13 PM
This is really worth knowing about. Thanks very much.
tim maguire March 26, 2012 at 06:17 PM
It's a great way to do a memorial, though a 100-year-old fire seems an odd choice (everyone involved would be long gone and forgotten by now in any case). How about as a 9/11 memorial? I think a project like this would be far superior to the permanent one that's being built downtown.
Laura Setser March 29, 2012 at 03:53 AM
My friends and I are doing a thing called history day over this topic and we are almost done with our project if you can help me find anymore information about the fire it would be very helpful. Thank You very much.
Joanna Prisco March 29, 2012 at 04:29 AM
Laura, you should certainly visit the CHALK web site (linked above), http://rememberthetrianglefire.org/, www.ilr.cornell.edu/trianglefire, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/triangle/ and http://www.wnyc.org/articles/wnyc-news/2011/mar/21/100-years-later-remembering-triangle-shirtwaist-factory-fire/ Good luck!

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