On March 25, 1911, 146 garment workers perished in the devastating Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in Greenwich Village. Ignited by a cigarette butt, the fire engulfed the factory where mostly young immigrant women worked nine to 16-hour days, six days a week, creating blouses known as shirtwaists for below minimum wage.
Now, a permanent memorial in remembrance of the workplace tragedy has been installed at the site of the historic disaster. Today, October 11, over 500 people gathered at the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place for the unveiling of the new memorial to remember the horrific fire that took the lives of the garment workers 112 years ago, and to commemorate the event’s enduring influence on the labor movement.
Designed by Uri Wegman and Richard Joon Yoo, the memorial consists of an engraved steel band that envelopes the corners of what is now New York University’s Brown Building. The names and ages of the 146 victims are cut into the steel ribbon and reflected down onto street-level darkened paneling, where visitors can also read about the story of the fire in English, Yiddish, and Italian, the languages spoken by the victims. Funded by a $1.5 million grant from the state, the memorial is slated to be completed by the beginning of 2024, which will extend the steel ribbon so it scales the height of the building up to the ninth floor.
The design was chosen out of nearly 180 proposals submitted in an international competition held by Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition — the volunteer organization that spearheaded the initiative for the memorial since the fire’s centennial in 2011.
Today’s dedication ceremony, which consisted of speeches, musical performances, and poetry readings, was attended by familial descendants of the fire victims, labor organizing leaders and union members from a cross-section of industries, state and city legislators, public health and safety officials, university students and faculty, and New York City residents. They came together to not only honor the factory fire’s victims, but also in solidarity with the broader labor movement.
From the ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike over fair contracts to unionized nail technicians calling for safe working conditions and better pay, the crowd of attendants was full of colorful posters campaigning on behalf of various labor movements.
Angelina Palafox, a nail technician and member of the Healthy Nail Salons Coalition, told Hyperallergic that she and her fellow coalition members were at the event “because nail salon workers have no protection.” In May, she testified during a state senate hearing on wage theft. Regularly working 10-hour shifts at her salon, Palafox said that she and her coalition “want legislators to help pass laws that protect salary minimums,” as well as maintain safe working conditions.
Red, blue, and white flags mark the ninth-story windows of the Brown Building, where the factory used to exist. At the time of the fire, many of the workers, desperate to escape the flames, fell from these windows and plummeted into the street. Others fell when a fire escape collapsed, plunging them into the sharp iron fence below.
Some workers, unable to leave the factory because their bosses had locked the doors, perished inside. The event, which traumatized many New Yorkers and the rest of the country, led to the passing of major labor rights legislation and fire prevention safety protocols including the Sullivan-Hoey Fire Prevention Law and various New Deal reforms that guaranteed workers’ rights.
“Descendants of those lost in the fire can celebrate that we now have a tangible site for collective memory and collective action,” said Suzanne Pred Bass, whose two great-aunts were working in the factory on the day of the fire.
While her one great-aunt Katie survived, her 23-year-old sister Rosie Weiner died. In addition to Pred Bass, at least 150 other family members were at the ceremony.
“It is gratifying for all the family members of those who died in this tragic fire to know that through the memorial, this and future generations will learn about its fight, the fire, and the knowledge that it will inspire people and raise awareness of what is possible when we work together to better the lives of workers struggling for fair wages, decent benefits, and safe working conditions,” Pred Bass said.