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Memorial coming for Shirtwaist Factory fire

By Gabriel Rom

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, a disaster that highlighted dangerous labor conditions for European immigrants in early 20th century New York, will be remembered with a memorial.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that New York state would put $1.5 million from state economic development funds toward the memorial, which will be attached to the front of the factory building, still standing at 29 Washington Place.

“The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire galvanized the labor movement in America and should never be forgotten,” Cuomo said in a statement announcing the grant.

“New York state has always been a beacon for progressive government policies, and while we honor the victims’ legacy with this memorial, we must continue to improve workplace protections to ensure tragedies like this one are never repeated.”

Serphin Maltese, a former state senator from Queens, lost his grandmother and two aunts in the fire.

“The entire nation changed as a result of Triangle,” said Maltese, who grew up on the Lower East Side only blocks away from the factory, in a video interview with the Department of Transportation from 2011

“Triangle woke everybody up to the inequities of the system and the fact that these immigrants were treated so terribly and ultimately resulted not only in the loss of 146 people there but there were other fires and others who lost their lives,” he added.

His three relatives had come to America from Italy. The fire was one of the nation’s worst industrial disasters; 46 of those who died were women, and almost all were Italian or Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. The tragedy led to legislation that addressed factory safety standards, and to better working conditions for the many sweatshop workers in the city’s industrial sector.

Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition, a group of labor advocates and descendants of victims, has lobbied for a memorial since 2011.

The design for the memorial, by Richard Joon Yoo, an architectural designer, and Uri Wegman, an architecture professor at Cooper Union, envisions three sets of polished steel panels incorporated into the building’s facade.

The building, which is now owned by New York University, houses biology and chemistry labs. The bottom panel will tell the history of the fire, and a vertical panel at about 17 feet above street level will bear the names of the 146 victims. More than 50 of the workers jumped to their deaths from the floor above.

“We’re very pleased to hear the great news about Governor Cuomo’s support of the project, and glad about what this means for the coalition’s efforts,” John Beckman, New York University’s spokesman, said.

Reach reporter Gabriel Rom by e-mail at grom@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4564.

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