106 years ago, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire took place, which was one of the deadliest industrial disasters in American history. This tragedy is commemorated each year with memorials and reflections upon the plight and progress of workers, women, and immigrants. The Shirtwaist Factory Fire also offers a time to reflect on another more recent tragedy very close by and also in our neighborhood, which not only occurred on nearly the same day one hundred four years later, but which was also seemingly caused by negligence and greed — the deadly gas explosion at 7th Street and 2nd Avenue.
On March 25th, 1911, a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, located at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street, took the lives of 146 workers, mostly immigrant women, inspiring the young labor movement and precipitating new worker safety regulations across the country. The factory made shirtwaists, a ready to wear, high-necked, button-down blouse very popular with working women in the late 19thand early 20th centuries. The building, then called the Asch Building after one of its developers Joseph Asch, was built as a “modern loft structure with a skeleton from of iron and steel protected by terra-cotta fireproofing, passenger and freight elevators, and electric power for lights and machinery.” Though the building was considered fireproof, it was not built to help residents in case of a fire. The fire escape was never fully completed and it collapsed as workers rushed to escape. Locked stairwell doors sent many crowding to the elevator. It ran as long as it could, bringing workers to safety. Locking workers in was a common practice at this time to prevent them from taking unauthorized breaks. Fire trucks arrived, but their ladders only reached the 6th floor, but the building, like many of the new loft buildings, reached ten stories.
On March 26th, 2015, an explosion and fire led to the destruction of three buildings at 119, 121, and 123 Second Avenue in the East Village. Tragically, two lives were lost, more than a dozen people were injured, and many people lost their homes, businesses, and livelihoods. At 121 Second Ave., an illegal gas hookup had allegedly been installed to evade detection and provide the reported $6000 a month tenants upstairs with service. Two cenotaphs still stand on the plots where the buildings once stood, one for patron Nicholas Figueroa and one for employee Moises Ismael Locón Yac, haunting reminders of this terrible tragedy.
The aftermath of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire helped lead to the establishment of better labor practices and laws to protect workers and create for safer workplaces. It took the gravity of this tragedy to further galvanize the labor community in their fight for these protections. Today, we remember the fire as one of the defining moments in both NYC and U.S. labor reform history, and groups like the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition keep the memory of this incident, and the women who perished because of it, alive in public memory.
Since the East Village has explosion two years ago, the land where these buildings once stood still remains empty. In February 2016, five people were arrested in connection with the explosion. The aftermath of the explosion also saw city council introduce a slew of bills related to gas safety in NYC.
If you want to learn more about the Triangle Shirtwaist, see GVSHP’s webpage dedicated to that history-shaping event here.