Saturday, April 2, 2016

See You in the Streets: Art, Action, and Remembering the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire


Rating: 4 Stars


I received this book as an ARC via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

As I was reading this one, I recalled borrowing a friend's copy of Triangle: The Fire that Changed America in college and for the life of me, could not remember learning about it in school at any point. As fate would have it, a random conversation with a friend from high school around the anniversary of the fire on March 25th jogged my memory and I remembered we DID learn about it in my 10th grade AP history class. Not only did we learn about it, we performed a mock trial in our combined AP English/History block about it. Unlike in real life, we found the factory owners (Isaac Harris and Max Blanck) guilty. Then in college a friend was reading the above book I mentioned for one of her journalism classes and I borrowed it. It was fantastic and the story has lingered in the back of my brain ever since.

For those who do not know, on March 25th, 1911, 146 people (mostly young women between 16-22), died when the factory they worked in caught fire. These people either jumped to their deaths to avoid the fire when the heat became unbearable, or were burned in the fire. So many things contributed to this fire - unsafe working conditions and crowded factory floors, flammable materials, rubbish heaps, rotted fire-hoses, no phones to communicate between factory floors, no sprinkler system, locked doors, insufficient fire escape...the list goes on and on. If the tragedy and its aftermath is a topic you are interested in, 'Triangle: The Fire that Changed America' by David von Drehle really is fantastic and through BookBub I was able to purchase it on March 25th for $1.99. It was a pleasant surprise, as I had been hoping it might go on sale on the anniversary.

Despite it being over a century now since this tragedy occurred, I was pleased to find this title on NetGalley and see that these victims, so many of them young immigrant women (two victims were 14) working to support their families, are still being remembered today. The book details the beginning of Chalk starting in 2004, when the author invited several people to participate in a public memorial whereby they were each given a number of victims' names, ages, and addresses. Each person then went around the city, chalking the sidewalk where the victim had lived. Here are a few photos from around the Internet, such Huffington Post's article. of some of the chalkings. I did not take any of these photos, they do not belong to me.

The Chalk project eventually lead the author to create the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition, which invited the participation of people from a wide variety of backgrounds to help put together a memorial to honor the 100th anniversary in 2011. The book details the author and group's struggle to work together at times, especially in the face of very differing opinions. With so many people involved, and new people taking an interest all the time, it became difficult at times to manage and the book presents those ups and downs as the group experienced them.

The piece of the project I found most interesting and powerful was the making of the shirtwaists for the 2011 commemoration. The group not only made the shirtwaists and attached them to bamboo poles in order to carry them, but also made a sash for each victim so again, their names would not be forgotten. (Photo from Wikipedia page regarding the Triangle fire.)

While I appreciate the author's background in film-making and other projects, I was reading this solely for the Triangle fire and the projects/coalition working to remember these workers who never had a chance to survive. I realize the author's background is somewhat important to the story, in order for the reader to see how she might be qualified to undertake something like this. What bothered me most though was the inclusion of the 9-11 project as well. I feel like discussing that as well took away from Triangle's story. New York and tragedy often go hand-in-hand, but comparing tragedies, even by accident, lessens the impact of one or the other. September 11th will never be forgotten. Almost 15 years later, I still remember every moment of that day, in my freshman year of college. I will never forget it. But so many people do not even know what the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was. It deserves attention all its own.

Overall, despite my issue mentioned above, this was an interesting read about a little-known topic. I was happy to see attention still being brought to this event in our history, as it seems largely forgotten overall. Seeing these women and men continue to be honored is so important to our history and our future and they should never be forgotten. Definitely recommended.

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