This week’s Tablet magazine column is a re-examination of the usual black-and-white telling of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire story. It’s easy to make it a tale of craven fat-cat greedy evildoers causing the deaths of innocents, and then we all grieved and got workplace safety and workers’ rights and la la la all better.
The reality, of course, is not so simple. What if the factory owners were not mustache-twirling spawns of Satan, but rather scapegoats for an ingrained, screwed-up system of exploitation? If we take a more nuanced view, and we don’t get to tack on a happy ending (yay, we all learned from the fire!) to the story, it’s easier to see the powerful parallels to our own workplaces. We should be using Triangle as the impetus to look hard at Scott Walker’s determination to crush Wisconsin’s unions, and at recent workplace disasters like the Sago mine, Rubashkin’s slaughterhouse and Deepwater Horizon.
Anyway, go read the piece. And be sure to check out Susan Harris’s lovely, touching fabric art at the New York Fire Museum on Spring Street. Her show opens the evening of March 26 and runs through April 23. (When I told her that the image of all those bits of Edwardian fabric strung up high above the fire trucks reminded me of the laundry lines that criss-crossed old tenements on the Lower East Side, she said that wasn’t her intention at all. She was thinking of Tibetan prayer flags. But hey, art has different resonances for everyone who sees it. Check it out if you’re in the nabe, and let me know what you think!)