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Triangle fire of 1911 still echoes in NYC and beyond

Media Contact

Rebecca Valli

Sunday will mark the 107th anniversary of one of the most devastating industrial accidents in New York City. At 4:30 pm on March 25, 1911, a fire engulfed the Asch Building, currently known as the Brown Building at 23–29 Washington Place in the Greenwich Village. Just 18 minutes later 146 people, mostly Jewish and Italian immigrant women working in the Triangle Shirtwaist garment factory, were dead.

Elissa Sampson

Visiting Scholar in Cornell's Jewish Studies program

Experts at Cornell University are available for interviews about the long-lasting legacy of the fire and the activism it sparked within the labor movement and immigrant communities in the city and nationwide. Elissa Sampson is a visiting scholar and lecturer in Cornell's Jewish Studies Program. She teaches about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire as part of her work documenting Jewish immigrant life and activism in New York's Lower East Side. Jonathan Boyarin is professor of modern Jewish studies at Cornell. He has worked on a range of ethnographic projects in the Lower East Side of New York City.

Media note: Images and more information about the 1911 Triangle Factory Fire can be found here. In addition Sampson and Boyarin will take part in the presentation and discussion “Triangle Fire: See you in the streets” on March 26 to commemorate the tragedy and remember its victims.

Sampson says:

“After the fire, union organizers needed to balance two very different reactions as seen in these slogans: 'We Mourn Our Loss' and 'Don't Mourn, Organize.' People needed to do both in 1911 and we need to do both today. In a city of immigrants, we show respect for the living by showing respect for the dead.

"This local New York story resonates deeply as it travels in multiple directions in a world in which the garment trade is global. Its echoes reverberate in the Rana Plaza tragedy in Bangladesh and elsewhere around the globe. Most of those who perished in 1911 were young women and girls who lived in the Lower East Side and Little Italy. New Yorkers can picture themselves in that building. So can many others today.

"The dead have bequeathed us a legacy. Public outrage sparked subsequent legislation in support of workplace safety conditions. These immigrants worked in a factory which had been previously been picketed by 20,000 female garment workers during the Shirtwaist Strike of 1909."

Jonathan Boyarin

Mann Professor of Modern Jewish Studies

Jonathan Boyarin is professor of modern Jewish studies at Cornell. He has worked on a range of ethnographic projects in the Lower East Side of New York City.

Boyarin says: 

“Our goal is both to commemorate the Triangle Fire itself and to understand more about the efforts to keep its memory alive today. The building - now part of New York University’s Washington Square campus - still stands. But until the Remember the Triangle Fire coalition successfully lobbied for a permanent memorial now in the planning stages, it was all too easy to walk by and forget what happened there. Remembering the fire doesn't just honor its victims, but also helps keep alive the goal of creating a world where that kind of human-made disaster is unthinkable."

Cornell University has television, ISDN and dedicated Skype/Google+ Hangout studios available for media interviews.