11 years of chalking

by marjorieingall on March 26, 2019

Just skip this whole post if you’re sick of hearing me talk about CHALK,  the wonderful art project created by multidisciplinary artist Ruth Sergel,

CHALK involves volunteers fanning out across New York City on the anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and writing the names and ages of the 146 victims in front of where they used to live. Sometimes you crouch in front of a tenement that looks a lot like it did back on March 25, 1911. Sometimes you’re on your hands and knees in front of a huge condo or fancy boutique or bank.

Since 2008, when Josie was 7, she’s been writing the name of Kate Leone. At 14, Kate was one of the two youngest victims. Josie had read two children’s books about the fire and about labor activism in turn-of-the-century NYC: One was called Gotcha, by Carol Matas, about an 11-year-old girl getting involved with the 1909-1910 factory workers’ strike. The other was Fire at the Triangle Factory by Holly Littlefield, about two 14-year-old survivors of the disaster. She got a little obsessed, as is our family tradition. I’d always been fascinated by NYC history and its waves of immigration, as well as engaged in the labor movement and with women’s history…all of which come together in the story of the fire. (I’d also found out, belatedly, that my husband is related to Max Steuer, the notorious lawyer who defended the factory owners. I learned this after we named our second child Maxine Steuer. Oops.) So I was delighted that Josie wanted to be involved in Ruth’s memorial project. She declared that she wanted to chalk for one of the youngest victims. I don’t remember how we wound up with Kate instead of Rosaria Maltese, also 14; maybe Rosaria had family members who wanted to write her name. Maltese family descendants have been involved with the Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition.

In recent years, as CHALK has become better known, there have been lots of volunteers. Since 2017, we’ve chalked only for Kate. In the early years, though, we walked back and forth all over the East Village, writing name after name. Regardless, there’s something visceral about getting down on your hands and knees on the sidewalk and writing a name, an address, an age, and “LIVED HERE, DIED MARCH 25, 1911, TRIANGLE FACTORY FIRE.” It takes about a half-hour. We put up fliers about the history of the fire and the need for continued vigilance about sweatshops around the world and support for immigrant and refugee rights today.

Sometimes there is dog poop. Sometimes people are annoyed that you’re blocking the sidewalk. Sometimes they walk right over your lettering as you’re writing. Sometimes they stop to talk. One year, graffiti artist and Keith Haring collaborator Angel Ortiz passed by and asked what we were doing, then jumped in himself, adding squiggly lines, a radiant baby and a barking dog. Sometimes rain washes the letters away even as we’re writing them. This year, we chatted with one of the current residents at Kate’s address (he said he’d looked up the fire after the first time he’d seen Kate’s name in front of his house, and learned a lot) who’d come outside to empty the trash. 

Kate wasn’t the only Triangle victim to live at 515 East 11th Street. Jennie Pildescu, 18, lived there too. Some years when Josie and I arrived with our supplies, Jennie’s name was already there. Sometimes it wasn’t, and we hoped that someone would come later, that she wouldn’t be forgotten. I always imagined Kate and Jennie walking to work together — maybe Jennie got Kate the job?

This year, we were surprised and happy to see our friend Vivian pop out of a cab to chalk for Jennie. Vivian’s grandmother was a longtime labor activist who had in fact worked at the Triangle; she wasn’t working the day of the fire. In the tiny world of the East Village, Vivian’s daughter went to public school with my younger kid, and in fact, drew the entire 1st and 2nd grades into neighborhood activism, inducing her classmates to mobilize to protect a local coffee shop and working to save an at-risk school library. Fighting for justice runs in the family.

When Josie first chalked she was six. Now she’s 17. Every year she got closer to Kate’s age, then reached it, then passed it. Now she’s headed off to college, to a life Kate couldn’t have imagined. She promises to come back every year on March 25, for Kate. 

Here’s a picture a year, from 2009 (I didn’t take a picture in 2008! who knew??) to 2019. In 2011, someone else wrote Kate’s name before we arrived on East 11th Street, perhaps thinking they were being helpful. We added some designs, then moved on to our other names. When we got home, Josie wrote Kate’s name on her hand, her own private memorial.



{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

tanita March 26, 2019 at 2:47 pm

People make a tradition of how they carry out the turkey (or the haggis, if you’re from further North with a heavier brogue), or what they do on Cinco de Mayo or the whole family showing up for something at church… you and your girls have made a tradition of remembrance and honor and it is just the most beautiful launch you’ve given your precious little boats into the cold and sometimes very dark and bitter seas of this life. That apocryphal “rising tide that lifts all boats” is made up of little surges of moral centeredness, ethics, and goodness such as these.

You are one of the best thinky, “history-is-crucial (but life can be beautiful)!” Moms I know.

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