Josie (age eight) and I did the Chalk Project again. An HBO documentary crew doing a film about the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire followed us. I was distracted, wearing the Mom Hat. Was Josie going to drop the box of chalk? Was she engaged? Did she know how to spell “Jennie”?
I was trying to focus on answering the producer’s questions about the fire and its import, something I’ve written about before. But I wish I’d volunteered more info about how amazing I think the Chalk Project itself is. The experience of chalking is so immediate — crouching or sprawling on the ground while people stare at you, feeling conspicuous, clutching the crumbly chalk and trying to print neatly, thinking about where to tape the flyer of info about the Triangle. It’s powerful to really look at the tenements where the girls once lived, so like the one where I currently live…and suddenly it’s easy to picture them 99 years ago. Sometimes you chalk in front of an address that no longer exists, or a building that’s become a giant monstrosity, and it’s instructive to reflect on whatever’s taken the tenement’s place. And you can imagine the girls who lived in the same building or on the same block walking to work at the factory together. Those feelings of connectedness are part of why I think the Chalk Project is brilliant. While it’s fun to chalk with Josie (and I love that immigration history and labor history are meaningful to her too), I do feel I lose something by having to wear the Mom Hat at the same time as the Chalker Hat.
On the upside, we had a lovely moment of human connection while chalking in front of a (new) building on 11th and B. As Josie was chalking (she chalked for Kate Leone, one of the two 14-year-old victims — she’s always been drawn to the idea of the youngest girls working in the factory) when a mom with two little girls came home. Sometimes people are nasty when they see us — WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN FRONT OF MY BUILDING? — but this mom was into it. She was Italian (first generation, from Italy, fabulous accent and all), just like Kate and so many of the other victims. She told me that when she moved here, and learned about the fire (through Chalk, in front of her building every year) she felt connected to immigration history in this country and what it was like for earlier generations of Italians. Her little girls’ public school does an immigration curriculum (as does Josie’s — seeing Jo chatting with one of the little girls was cute) — and this year, her daughters’ school actually participated in the memorial ceremony. They jointed the volunteers placing flowers by the site, one for each victim, as each name is read aloud. Making connections like that is part of why The Chalk Project is so meaningful.