A Void: Where's the Triangle Fire Memorial?

There is no statue to commemorate the senseless deaths of 120 women and 26 men in New York City's famous and tragic fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Company.

The 100th anniversary was on Friday, March 25th. The anniversary will be commemorated for months in New York City.

But there is no statue.

On March 25, 1911 the Triangle Shirtwaist Company went up in flames: fire escape doors were locked, water hoses ran dry. Fearing death, many of the teenage girls who labored for an unforgivable number of hours a week as garment workers jumped out of windows to their deaths.

For 90 years the Triangle Fire was the worst fire in NYC history -- until 9-11.

Yet there is only a small public, physical reminder of this tragedy that changed the course of history for New Yorkers and a nation at large. That reminder is a gravestone that sits in a cemetery in Brooklyn, miles from the location of the Manhattan disaster. Commissioned by the City of New York a year after the fire and sculpted by Evelyn Beatrice Longman the memorial is a headstone for the seven unidentified women who died in the fire. According to an article by Ellen Wiley Todd in American Art magazine, the installation of the sculpted gravestone went unmentioned by the media of the era.

And so, as the New York Times "City Room" Blog states, we as a nation cling to scraps of memories of the fire and its victims, because that's all that's left. Joseph Berger writes, the "Triangle fire left a scar on the city's psyche and its history... Yet the lives of the victims themselves quickly faded from the pages of newspapers..."

Why are we diminished to "clinging to scraps of memories"?

Because, shame on New York City and shame on our nation, there is no memorial to the victims, there is no statue that sits on the site of this historic tragedy to commemorate these senseless deaths.

Yes, labor laws in our country were changed because of this tragedy, but there remains no physical entity, no physical structure, to remind us what happened inside the Triangle Shirtwaist Company.

And not for lack of effort.

Judith Weller, for one, tried for years, if not decades, to create such a monument to the tragedy; a memorial in the form of a statue that would depict the female immigrants who worked tirelessly as garment workers during the beginning of the Century.

"I would like to do a statue of a woman to represent the women who died in the fire," says Judith Weller, a NYC sculptor, still hopeful just a few days ago. "Most of the people who died in the fire were immigrant women."

Weller is best known for "The Garment Worker," a celebrated bronze sculpture created in the image of her garment-worker father. The life-size sculpture sits on the corner of 7th Avenue and 39th Street in NYC's Garment District. It has been there since 1984 and is quite well known by New Yorkers and tourists alike.

The Garment Worker was commissioned by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.

Not long after The Garment Worker was installed, Weller conjured up an image of the statue that would commemorate the women and men who died in the fire. She worked well in advance of the 100th anniversary, imagining that in March 2011 her statue or someone's would be unveiled, a daily reminder to passersby of the fire, poor working conditions and how greed can cost lives.

But she was met with resistance.

By 1995, the ILGWU, in existence since 1900, had closed its doors, teaming up with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers' Union.

According to Weller, there was no interest in commissioning a statue to commemorate the women who died in the fire, not by the former ILGWU, not by foundations, not by city leaders, not by the independently wealthy.

She tried for years.

Now, 100 years later, the anniversary over, the chalk wiped clean from the doorways of houses where the deceased had lived (a temporary reminder by Street Public), there remains no permanent reminder, no spectacle that would get even the fastest paced New Yorkers to slow down and reflect on what happened inside the Triangle Shirtwaist Company 100 years ago on March 25, 1911.

The tragedy significantly affected the course of history in the United States, yet there is no statue.

That begs the obvious question, why?

Why has it not been commemorated? Was there really no funding for a statue? Was there really no interest in remembering NYC's worst fire? Or was it the subject matter, that the statue would commemorate women, that bothered people?

"There is enormous resistance to commemorating women," says Suzanne Scoggins, Director of Women's History at Equal Visibility Everywhere (EVE).

Statistics don't lie.

According to Scoggins, in New York City there are 159 historical statues of people; only five of the 159 of them are of women.

In Washington, DC there is only one memorial expressly dedicated to American women, the Vietnam Women's Memorial. "And it took years to get that approved," says Scoggins. "One opponent actually said that putting up a monument to women veterans of Vietnam made about as much sense as putting up a statue of dogs that had been in Vietnam."

And so, as a city and a nation commemorates the Triangle Fire, there remains no memorial to the 120 women and 26 men who died.

There were lists of events.

There were makeshift shirts that people held up and waved in the air.

And, among other events, there was a walking tour to commemorate the Triangle Fire that met at Lincoln Statue at Union Square Park.

Did organizers not even notice the irony of this meeting place? The void that required Lincoln to pinch-hit.

Tomorrow and the next day and months after that, the events will be over, images will be gone forever and we will still only be able to cling to the scraps of memories of the forgotten who perished in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in March 1911.