Day 84: 11.3.25.11

Today is the 84th Day of the Year

Bessie, my young neigh­bor, will not come home from work tonight.

She lives a few doors down — her build­ing is the one just before you reach the cor­ner of First Avenue.

Bessie is 15 years old, far too young to work as hard as she does, 6 days a week.

She came to the United States from Italy with her fam­ily when she was a one –year-old child.

Bessie Viviano is an Amer­i­can girl.

I am cer­tain Bessie has dreams of a bet­ter life.

That’s what Amer­ica is sup­posed to be about, isn’t it?

To live a bet­ter life?

To breathe the air of free­dom and opportunity?

That is why so many peo­ple came to our shores – to work hard enough and long enough to reach what would not have been pos­si­ble in the places left behind.

My neigh­bor Bessie Viviano is a shirt­waist seamstress.

The Brown Building, formly the Asch Building home site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fireShe works down­town at the Tri­an­gle Waist Fac­tory, with hun­dreds of other immi­grants, Ital­ian and Jew­ish girls and women, and a few men too.

It’s very dif­fi­cult for them inside that fac­tory, although I’ve heard it’s not the worst of the factories.

They are crammed together sewing and sewing. No breaks, no con­sid­er­a­tions from own­ers or management.

They are treated poorly and paid little.

They are charged if they break a nee­dle or make a mistake.

Bessie and her co-workers too often come home with no pay or reduced pay, pun­ished for errors caused by fatigue or the company’s faulty sewing machines.

Bessie will never come home, never come back to East 54th Street, never get mar­ried, never leave the fac­tory alive, never find a bet­ter life.

Bessie and 145 oth­ers she works with will never know that much of what they demanded dur­ing the strikes will come true – eventually.

2011

I won­der what her fam­ily did that day and that night and dur­ing the days and the nights that came long after Bessie Viviano’s death. Was she remembered?

100 years ago today, on a Sat­ur­day, the 25th of March 1911, at 4:40 p.m., a fire broke out in the Tri­an­gle Shirt­waist Fac­tory located on the cor­ner of Wash­ing­ton Place and Greene Street. The fac­tory was in the Asch Build­ing, on the eighth, ninth and tenth floors. (Today it is the Brown Build­ing of Sci­ence, of New York University.)

The top 3 floors of the former Asch building seen from the street.Bessie and 145 of her co-workers were killed that day. They were all immi­grants, Jew­ish and Ital­ian girls and women and a num­ber of men. Exit doors were locked. Some jumped to their deaths in a des­per­ate hope they would be saved by the nets the fire­men held, but they were not. Some jumped when already ablaze. Some fell down the ele­va­tor shaft try­ing to escape. Some were crushed as the fire escape melted and col­lapsed and they fell to their deaths. The ground was 100 feet below them. Some were trapped inside and burned together in an inferno – the flames betrayed the Amer­i­can Dream.

There is no extant image of Bessie that I’ve ever been able to find. Yet, Bessie exists for me espe­cially because she lived on the same street I do. Unlike Bessie Viviano I have lived much of the Amer­i­can dream she and so many oth­ers were denied. This anniver­sary of the Tri­an­gle Shirt­waist Fac­tory Fire is impor­tant not only because it is the 100th year but also because work­ers all over the world are still in jeop­ardy of los­ing their lives or being severely injured in unsafe work­places. This year mat­ters because some among us seem to have for­got­ten why our labor move­ment existed. And why the right to a col­lec­tive voice to redress unfair­ness and abuse still mat­ters to us, to work­ing peo­ple in a democracy.

Bessie became a part of my life, on a pre­vi­ous 25th of March, when I stum­bled upon a chalked mes­sage in front of what was once 352 East 54th. Now the awning says: 350 East 54th. The chalked words said Bessie Viviano, 15 years of age, and gave a few more basic facts. A small poster on a tree noted the day of the fire. The visual expe­ri­ence stopped me cold as I stood and read it. Then I began to cry. Sud­denly this was a real event, not just his­tor­i­cal facts, not only a sin­gu­larly impor­tant part of women’s his­tory, of the his­tory of work­ers in our coun­try, and of immi­gra­tion. It was the story of my street, my neigh­bor­hood. On this street, in 1911 this young girl per­ished in that fire that I heard about from child­hood. Then as now and for as long as I live, Bessie was and is my neigh­bor. I did not know then, nor do I know today, if any of the Viviano family’s descen­dants sur­vive. I know that Bessie did not have a fam­ily yet, not at 15. So I have become her fam­ily, a cho­sen descen­dent of my ancestor-neighbor. Names are writ­ten on side­walks all over the city by a remark­able group of peo­ple at the Chalk Project. Vol­un­teers mark each and every place a vic­tim of the fire lived, on the 25th of March, each and every year.

What I say to Bessie qui­etly each year is that this is a bet­ter place than it was in 1911. But I con­fess there is still much work to do. I tell her that for too many, espe­cially the poor and newly arrived, life is still harsh and often dangerous.

This year I wanted to do some­thing within the space on From This Ter­race for and about the 100th Anniver­sary of the Fac­tory Fire. I asked Susan Springer Ander­son to think about what she would do as an artist. The result is called sim­ply 11.3.25.11. It is exhib­ited here for all of you to see. Susan tells the story in more vivid detail than any words or pic­tures of the tragedy could pos­si­bly con­vey. Art is often the best sto­ry­teller we have.

Susan designed and made a shirt­waist but it is not a replica of the shirt­waists of that time. It is a cre­ative rein­ter­pre­ta­tion. This shirt­waist closely resem­bles what the work­ers would have worn. As you see it is white, has sim­ple lines and gath­ers. In Susan’s words: “It is a hum­ble gar­ment. But then I needed to add the names of the fire’s vic­tims. I wanted them to be inte­grated into the design, not just an added kitsch ele­ment. The idea came to take the names and write them out in an embroi­dery design, a design ele­ment that would have been reserved for the high-end shirt­waists (for women of means) due to the amount of labor involved.”

Alternate view of 11.3.25.11Susan cre­ated the shirt­waist memo­r­ial out of Tyvek, the build­ing mate­r­ial. Tyvek is most often used for insu­la­tion in con­struc­tion. Susan’s offer­ing for this anniver­sary says many things to me, and each per­son that has seen it comes away with some­thing else. That is the power of art, it trans­forms our lives, our real­ity and how we see the world – past and present. For me, the Tyvek rep­re­sents a life of con­stric­tion, with­out free­dom of move­ment per­mit­ted in work tasks or in daily or per­sonal choices. The black satin rib­bon waist­band is an adorn­ment but also a state­ment that we mourn this day. Detail of the cuffThe cre­ation of a flo­ral pat­tern, which would not have embell­ished the worker’s shirt­waists, is upon close inspec­tion, not flow­ers at all, but the names of each of the dead, hand-inscribed. This shirt­waist is the inspi­ra­tion of a fine artist who has in turn inspired me to want to work harder to help cre­ate bet­ter lives for all who are still dimin­ished in the choices they can make. The high neck col­lar and closed cuffs, typ­i­cal of the day, also remind me that girls and women were held back from so much.

I tell the story of Bessie, as I imag­ine that day for her fam­ily, because I believe that within each great sor­row­ful event in his­tory, there is the story of the One Per­son who then tells the story of the many, because within an indi­vid­ual life is the reflec­tion of all of us.

A close up of Bessie's name inscribed on 11.3.25.11

This Day, the 25th of March 2011 is ded­i­cated to Bessie Viviano and each and every other girl, woman and man whose life was extin­guished in an indus­trial work­place acci­dent that never needed to happen.

May all their names be for a blessed mem­ory today and for all time. May the mem­o­ries of the lives that they were not per­mit­ted to live fully,  move each one of us for­ward with a renewed sense that inequal­ity and unfair­ness is never acceptable.

Full Length shot of 11.3.25.11

If you would like to share any sto­ries or feel­ings about this day or Susan’s work, please leave a com­ment or con­tact us. We have pro­vided links below to other memo­r­ial projects and sources for more infor­ma­tion about the his­tory of the Tri­an­gle Shirt­waist Fac­tory Fire.

Please visit our full Gallery of Pho­tos posted in the Gal­leries Room on From This Terrace.

©2011 Alida Brill From This Terrace

Pic­tures of the 11.3.25.11 © Michael Markham Pho­tog­ra­phy 2011

6–6:30pm  (EST), March 24, 2011
Susan & Alida fea­tured on A League of Our Own with host Fran Spencer
88.7 FM WHRUhttp://live.streamwrhu.net/

Remem­ber the Tri­an­gle Fire Coali­tion A great source for events sur­round­ing the Centennial.

Chalk Project

PBS Amer­i­can Expe­ri­ence Film about The Fire:  Watch online here.

An arti­cle from the New York Times about Anthony Giacchino who wrote let­ters to the vic­tims of the fire.

An arti­cle in the Wash­ing­ton Post.

Wikipedia Page

A time­line of events sur­round­ing the fire.

A plaque commemorating the fire.

People visiting the site of the Fire

12 Comments

Filed under Community, Compassion, Friendship, Hope, Inspiration, Life, Memories, Politics, Relationships, This Moment, Time, Women

12 Responses to Day 84: 11.3.25.11

  1. Alida and Susan, you are doing amaz­ing work, an I look for­ward to tun­ing in to the radio show soon. As you know, I find dates and anniver­saries and their sym­me­try very sacred, and this piece — both writ­ten and visu­ally cre­ated — high­lights such sig­nif­i­cance. What mar­velous gifts you bring in remem­brance of those who per­ished need­lessly and those who are still fight­ing for the Amer­i­can dream yet remain constricted.

  2. Bernadette Bucher

    I just for­warded to sev­eral friends this mov­ing and orig­i­nal memo­r­ial. Through your words and the work of Susan Springer, this trau­matic past event res­onates as omi­nously rel­e­vant today.
    The names embroi­dered on the shirt and those of the girls ALida evokes echo those inscribed on the mosaic floor of Judy Chicago’s Din­ner Party: women of hum­ble tasks and those of great deeds all buried alive and call­ing us to give them life again.
    Your dia­logue together on the radio show is also quite impressive.

  3. Thank you Alida and Susan. Susan, your art is so pow­er­ful. Alida, your writ­ing brings the tragedy to live. Reliv­ing this day through both of you has been painful, but I feel such grat­i­tude to both of you for keep­ing his­tory alive. Alida, I’m reminded of your post about the fam­i­lies dis­placed in Japan, how you saw your own elderly aunt in one of the women walk­ing around in the debris. I see my young grand­chil­dren — Malia at age 10 is not that much younger than some of the girls in the fac­tory — and feel like a Nana to all those young girls who perished.

  4. I am 59 years old. My mater­nal grand­mother was sent to work as a “bob­bin girl” in Holyoke, Mass. when 10 years old, work­ing from 6am until 6pm five days a week and 6am until noon on Sat­ur­day. It was dark when she went to work and mostly dark when she came home. She car­ried a heavy wooden bas­ket on one hip as she ran up and down the aisles between the weav­ing machines, chang­ing the bob­bins of thread when they ran out. Thank­fully, her asthma from the dust in the air caused her par­ents to remove her from the mills, but by then, her pos­ture was already deformed from the weight of the bob­bin bas­ket on her young spine.

    My mater­nal grand­fa­ther was 9 years old when he was sent from Aus­tria with his 11 year old sis­ter to work in the fac­to­ries of the US, because his fam­ily was too poor to feed all of their chil­dren. He never saw his fam­ily again nor did he ever attend a school. He became a trol­ley dri­ver by mem­o­riz­ing the names of the streets, names he could not read. Later, when he was a bar­tender, a wooden bar­rel of beer exploded when he tapped it, tear­ing away much of his face. He received no Work­ers Com­pen­sa­tion for his per­ma­nent disfigurement.

    My grand­par­ents’ early lives were unimag­in­ably dif­fi­cult. I am grate­ful for every per­son in the last hun­dred years who has had the courage to march for work­ers’ rights. Let us never for­get the work­ers who fought to elim­i­nate child labor and bring us the eight hour work day and five day work week, over­time pay, work­ers com­pen­sa­tion, health­care and sick day ben­e­fits, and safe work­ing con­di­tions. Rest in peace, Bessie.

  5. Katie Bamberger

    I remem­ber learn­ing about the Tri­an­gle Shirt­waist Fac­tory Fire in my 9th grade Amer­i­can his­tory class—it was brief and took the space of only one class period. At the time it seemed like just one more page in my text­book, an event far removed from where I was in the world. Now, though, this post has taught me not only a his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tive, but a per­sonal one. Although I have never expe­ri­enced these injus­tices, the extra­or­di­nary words and art from both of you allow for a deep con­nec­tion; a pow­er­ful and mov­ing remem­brance of this tragedy and a call for what still needs to be done. Thank you for this beau­ti­ful post.

  6. It is dif­fi­cult to put into words the emo­tions I feel as I read Alida’s post and study Susan’s art. Just … thank you ever so much.

    And I think about how grate­ful I am for unions — the Tri­an­gle Shirt­waist Fac­tory fire was a strong impe­tus for their growth in this coun­try — yet con­cerned that their influ­ence seems to be wan­ing. May this post, the art­work, and all the other memo­ri­als serve to strengthen the cause of unions in America.

  7. Leo Knudson

    To echo the words that went before, this memo­r­ial made cur­rent and per­sonal this event of long ago. It was per­haps one of the early vol­leys to bring home the need for pro­tec­tion that a union can pro­vide and a step in
    direc­tion of giv­ing women the right to vote. Sad to say, I won­der if the value
    a union is appre­ci­ated today. I live in Cal­i­for­nia, was in a ser­vice indus­try,
    and mem­ber of a union. I found the union to be the only buffer between both my co-workers, myself and the, at times, unre­al­is­tic expec­ta­tions of the
    cor­po­rate men­tal­ity. I felt I had a chance to express my con­cerns because I
    had the strength of the union behind me which could and did pro­tect me from ret­ri­bu­tion. What I do find dis­heart­en­ing is that today a good por­tion
    of the mem­ber­ship, at least here in Cal­i­for­nia, for­get the sac­ri­fices that were made by all those, like the Shirt­waist Girls, who went before to give us some
    lit­tle say in our des­tinies, to pro­vide bet­ter work­ing con­di­tions, a bet­ter stan­dard of liv­ing, and hope for our chil­dren to have more options than those
    of us who went before. Unfor­tu­nately, I see a strong effort by a few greedy
    peo­ple to strip the aver­age work­ing per­son of that pro­tec­tion so bru­tally won
    along with an apa­thy by the gen­eral pub­lic as to the value and need for unions. PS: May God keep and pro­tect Geral­dine Fer­raro in His hand. Thank you for let­ting me comment.

  8. Alida, you have given a voice to a young girl who was silenced much too soon. You have given life to some­one who lived so lit­tle of it. Just as Bessie’s suf­fer­ing and demise became real for you when you real­ized that she was a daugh­ter of your com­mu­nity, you have made her real for us as well. One hun­dred years ago, at first, seems like such a long time ago, but with your words, you have bridged the time and reawak­ened us to the hor­ror of the event, the lives lost and the ongo­ing strug­gle that many women still endure. Thank you for mak­ing us “feel it,” because that is the only way we can really know it which is the first step in the quest to change it. Susan’s sculp­ture is a beau­ti­ful trib­ute. The unique piece has a vul­ner­a­ble yet haunt­ing qual­ity to it. The atten­tion to detail is exquis­ite, and tells the story of who the victins were, what their work was, and the strug­gle of thier lives.

  9. Beau­ti­fully, mov­ingly, con­ceived and exe­cuted. Thank you, dear Alida, for the words. Thank you, Susan, for the art. Cre­ativ­ity is always the best memo­r­ial, since it breathes, and lives on.

  10. What a beau­ti­ful story-telling, what a per­fect way to bring the story to life. Both the words and the artis­tic inter­pre­ta­tion of the events. Thank you–it is bril­liant and moving!

  11. Alida: Your cre­ative gifts abound and we all are your ben­e­fi­cia­ries. You write beau­ti­fully and you under­stand suf­fer­ing, waste, cru­elty with a deep com­pas­sion. I love your blog­ging. F.H.

  12. Pingback: New Picture Collection | Michael Markham

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