Monthly Archives: March 2012

101 years on – The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire

March 25, 1911, New York City –

There were many who saw it coming.  Dangerous workplace conditions were one of the many targets of the labor movement of the late 19th/early 20th centuries.  Abhorrent sweat-shop conditions had already led to countless accidents in New York and elsewhere.  This era had seen a massive influx of immigrants – Chicago had grown from a town of 5,000 to a metropolis of 2.2 million in only 70 years.  In 1907 alone, 1.7 million Europeans passed through New York’s port.  It was said that every few years New York added to itself a city the size of Dublin; and indeed, by the opening of the 20th century, there were more Irish in NY than in Dublin, and more Greeks than in Athens.

Most of the immigrants were essentially peasants in the old world, living the same pre-industrial life that their forebears had lived for generation after generation.  It could be said that in coming to America, many flew headlong from a medieval sort of lifestyle into the most modern place on earth.

In a scenario played out over and over again before and since, the disoriented masses, impoverished and desperate, became the expendable and exploitable machinery of the titans of capitalism.

However, workers very quickly found their voices, unionizing and demanding rights to elevate them over the status of workhorses.  They, of course, were fought tooth and nail the whole way by the system that profited from their oppression.

1912 Lawrence Textile Strike

In 1909, workers of the Triangle Shirtwaist (blouse) Factory on Washington Place in Greenwich Village walked out, inspiring the mass strike of garment workers known as the “Uprising of 20,000”.

Speaking at a rally at Cooper Union (in the same theater that sparked the success of Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 campaign), 24-year-old Ukrainian-Jewish immigrant Clara Lemlich announced:

“I have listened to all the speakers, and I have no further patience for talk. I am a working girl, one of those striking against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in generalities. What we are here for is to decide whether or not to strike. I make a motion that we go out in a general strike.”

A year later, the “Great Revolt” witnessed a strike of 60,000.  The strikers and their organizers were predominantly Eastern-European Jewish or Italian – and female.

1910, New York

During both movements, the city responded with unlawful arrests and brutality tactics.  Lemlich herself had suffered broken ribs from a police attack.

In reactionary fear, the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory locked its doors during working hours, to prevent walk-outs and to keep union agitators out.

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory

So it was on the afternoon of March 25, 1911.  By some accounts, it was an unseasonably warm Saturday.  As always, nearby Washington Square Park was full of people enjoying the day.  At 4:40 pm, a fire broke out on the 8th floor of the factory.  The large amount of fabric present meant that the fire spread instantly, quickly engulfing the factory’s three floors.  Many loaded onto the only accessible fire escape, only to have it collapse beneath their feet.

In a scene horrifically repeated 90 years later in Lower Manhattan, trapped workers began to leap from the window, some of them aflame, some holding hands with each other – the majority of them teenage girls.

In all, 146 perished- many heaped in a bloody, charred pulp on the sidewalk.  Four bodies were not finally identified until 2011.

Almost immediately, crowds of horrified bystanders began to form:

“The emotions of the crowd were indescribable. Women were hysterical, scores fainted; men wept as, in paroxysms of frenzy, they hurled themselves against the police lines.”

The owners were subsequently acquitted of manslaughter charges, though forced to pay compensation to the victims’ families.  Twistedly, the amount they paid out was significantly less than the money they made back from insurance.

Tragedy it surely was – but if there is one bright spot, it is that middle and upper class New Yorkers could no longer look the other way on the issue of worker’s rights.  The city was forced to take moral stock of its principles.  The resulting reforms produced rights that we still enjoy today.

The fire was New York’s deadliest workplace disaster until 2001.  The fact that it resulted in the deaths of women and girls with no other options in life gave it a special place in the city’s infamy.

May Day, 1913 - Union Square

Last year was the centennial – the names and ages of the victims were written in chalk on the sidewalk where many died, wreaths and anonymous flowers were laid along the building – many descendants were present, and there was a woman incanting a Yiddish prayer.

The drapes mark windows from which workers jumped.

At 4:40, the time at which the fire started and alarms rose up around the city, the crowd rang bells while staring up at the windows.

Ringing of bells – TSF fire centennial

The building was renovated, and today is an NYU chemistry building.  However, very faintly, one can still see burn marks.

Victims' names - Centennial

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Climbing Mt. Washington by Leg

Once in awhile, one sees a bumper sticker that reads: “This Car Climbed Mt. Washington”.

 

Screw that, these legs climbed Mt. Washington.

It’s the highest peak in the northeastern United States, and was first recorded by the explorer, Giovanni Verrazano, who spotted it from the Atlantic in 1524.

However, at 6, 098 feet, Mt. Washington’s height is quite low.

which is deceiving….

trailhead

for Mt. Washington is considered one of the most dangerous mountains in the U.S..

It’s the weather.  The peak is uniquely situated along a weather system that makes for some of the most unpredictable weather around.  At times, it can be moderate and calm; but at others, it is viciously cold, icy, and WINDY.  In fact, the most powerful sustained surface wind ever recorded on Earth (231mph, on April 12, 1934) was at the weather observatory on the summit.  On average, the top of the mountain experiences hurricane-force winds for almost a third of the year.

Luckily, we were greeted with the gentler disposition of the peak.

After a long drive through the night from New York City, we slept a bit at a hotel, and hit the trail early the next morning.  Though it was late May, the trail was snow-covered – packed down by a long, long winter.  It was the Tuckerman Ravine trail-  the most common route to the summit.  Initially, the trail was filled with skiers, many French-Canadians among them.  The Tuckerman Ravine is a famous spot for free, facility-less skiing.  Pretty soon, the skiers veer off onto a sidetrail, and the forest begins to thin out.  The path becomes steeper, and in spots, one has to pass precariously along narrow footholds covered in snow.

Then you pass the treeline and clamor up rocks to Lion’s Head, an outcropping about halfway up the mountain.  The weather was fine this day- a light, chilly wind, with a clear view of the surrounding countryside.  Lunching at Lion’s Head, we spied upon the distant skiers in Tuckerman Ravine below, who were meer dots cruising down the sheer snow-fields.  Next, we passed relatively level ground  through the “Alpine Garden”  – covered with wind- and cold-swept lichen and icy meltwater.

Beyond, is a steep snow-covered slope, and above that are large boulders, spotted with navigational cairns.  Here is where you really begin to appreciate how far above the Northeastern U.S. you are.  The close clouds and the sheer rim surrounding the Ravine take on an alpine feel.  The wind picks up on the blank, rocky face.  Then finally, in a surreal moment, you emerge onto a road – the famous vehicle route to the top.  It’s only a few more meters to the true summit.

While it was springlike and mild at the trailhead, here it is freezing, and windy.

It was before tourist season, and the Road wasn’t open yet (it opens after Memorial Day) – the summit belonged to the climbers.  As mentioned above, the numerical altitude here is nothing at all to write home about.  However, given that the surrounding landscape is rather flat, the majesty of the scene is undeniable.  Part of the weather station is chained strongly to the the rocks, evidence of the possibly extreme wind up here.

The obligatory summit picture, and then the descent.

We returned to the trailhead around sunset, and drove off to our campsite in the deep dark of the White Mountains.  Along the way, a van in front of us with Quebec plates, stopped short – immediately before us was a towering moose, crossing across the road anxiously, glaring at us crazedly from the other side of the windshield.

The next morning, legs sore, we drove the long drive back to the city, with dreams of bare tundra landscapes on the surface of our minds.

just above Lion Head

– Being late May, we did not expect to encounter such a significant amount of snow.  Winter dies hard here – so plan accordingly.  Also – keep track of the weather reports.  Our climb was unusually blessed with mild conditions.  However, given the mountain’s record, this is not a landscape to take flippantly.   It is truly one of the few places in the East below deep-Canada to have such harshness.

Songs of the Chelsea Hotel

I’d forgotten about the Chelsea Hotel.  Even though I’m in the neighborhood at least once a week, its presence always eludes.  Which is appropriate, because as its long-time residents age, and the NY real estate vultures circle, it’s no longer the place it once was – it hasn’t been for decades now.

And it really doesn’t matter.  The place “it once was” never really was, except in the stories it created.  And these are perpetual, as long as anyone cares to remember.

Without expecting to, I came upon it yesterday.  And out of nowhere those old legends began to tumble forth.

It is a magnificent building.  One of a kind.  Gargantuan, imposing, and gothic, but with touches of grace here and there.  If it didn’t already carry so much cultural baggage, it would have made an even more terrifying setting than the Dakota in Rosemary’s Baby,

It opened in 1884, and its roster of short-term and long-term guests and residents is a staggering cross-section of the 20th century’s creative core.  Mark Twain and O. Henry were early residents.  In 1953, Dylan Thomas died here after his famous binge at the White Horse Tavern.  Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road here not long after.  Not long after that, Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey in his room here.  The 1960’s and 70’s saw Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Andy Warhol, Stanley Kubrick….

In the 60’s, actress Edie Sedgwick burned her roomed with an unattended cigarette, Warhol filmed Chelsea Girls; and in 1978, Nancy Spungen was found stabbed to death in the room she was sharing with Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols.

The litany goes on and on and on, and is the subject of more extensive research than mine.

In high school, during the late ’90’s, a couple of friends and I tried to sneak up the ornate staircase to get a glimpse of one of the rooms.  We were stopped, but had a chance to speak with a longtime resident in the lobby, who “had seen it all”.

The Chelsea Hotel has inspired many a song.  Here are two favorites:

More picture love from Gothamist

This past week, NYC news-blog Gothamist picked up one of my pics:

Broadway, Williamsburg, Brooklyn

 

A couple other of my Gothamist “appearances”:

https://ventilateblog.wordpress.com/2012/03/03/my-photo-in-gothamist/

https://ventilateblog.wordpress.com/2011/06/01/contrails-over-the-west-side-as-seen-in-gothamist/

Culebra

“Where are you going?”, says the parking lot attendant.  We’d just ridden down the hill to the ferry terminal, trying to beat time.  The night before was a late one.  After a drenching day in the mountains and rainforest, there had been many cigars, much swimming, and much rum.  Much rum.

“To the Culebra ferry”

It’s a bleary, stuffy, morning and the hazy sun promises overbearing heat.

“Go! Go! Go! What are you doing standing here?!”

Stray dogs in the terminal.   The sun too jarring.  U.S. agents checking for who knows what.  Board the boat, and push off to sea, watching Fajardo fade away.

Fajardo, Puerto Rico

Ten minutes on, the ferry is heaving and rolling.  It’s too early to be doing this shit.   The breakfast of black hotel coffee has become regrettable.  Churn.  Attendants walk the aisles with barf bags for the imminently ill.  But the real smasher is the dramamine.  It helps seasickness (much needed on this morning) surely, but the things it does to the mind are warped.  Thoughts become soggy, everything is distant.  You speak, but don’t connect your mind to the words.  Despite your outward lucidity, you can’t seem to keep track of the present.  How is this stuff legal to sell over the counter?

Ferry landing at Culebra

We arrive, and after a much needed stop at an empanada stand, we hop a colectivo and ride to Playa Flamenco.  The island is barren, sun-parched – the sky is huge in the way it is always huge on small islands.  The driver has a beer.

Playa Flamenco

Playa Flamenco is a secluded cove.  Other than a few makeshift facilities and a few food stands, the beach is wild.  And stunning.  Seawater cannot get any clearer than the seawater here.  The smell of grilling wafts by occasionally.  The food is delicious.

Some distance away are a couple of armored tanks, leftover from the days when the U.S. military used this shore as a firing range and training ground.  Rusted hulks half buried in the sand, every last inch of them covered in painting.

Tank at Playa Flamenco

You could disappear on this island for a longtime. To camp for a couple of months here would be a dream.

But we had to catch the last ferry back.

In the town, teenagers dive off the pier, swimming as the sunset begins.  The departing ferries are a zoo.  The end of the President’s Day weekend – hoards of high-schoolers singing along to Spanish rock savoring every last minute of the holiday.     Loudly.  One of those  “Shut the hell up!” moments.  But you can’t say it, because you’re kind of there too.  Your insides softly lamenting the passage of time while still trying to wrench out all the last juice.

No matter.  That night we ate, and swam, and smoked, and drank, and talked outside for hours.  The next morning we left Puerto Rico for the barren and cold north.

Waiters in red vests – 2 venerable NYC restaurant holdouts

It’s an almost-lost world – restaurants from the mythical “old New York” – places with checkered tablecloths and old-school waiters in red vests.

The New York Public Library recently began archiving historical menus (http://menus.nypl.org/) detailing the story of the city’s long-running culinary story.  When you have centuries of global immigrant influx, and a reputation of world-class sophistication and refinement, it goes without saying that you will have a dining scene that is constantly evolving, and constantly enriched.

NYC’s restaurant-going public is notoriously fickle.  Common thought says that opening an eatery here is a move verging on financial suicide.  Which is why it is extraordinary that a handful of places have survived the ages.

There are those venerable places that get all the attention – Peter Luger Steakhouse, Delmonico’s, Fraunces’ Tavern (George Washington’s old haunt) etc. More interesting are the spots that survive under the radar.

Two such restaurants grace the Village – “Spain” in the west, and “Lanza’s” in the East.  These are places with staunchly traditional menus, timelessly kitschy and unpretentious decor, and old-world manners – family affairs where a carafe of house wine is de rigueur and where the same patrons have been coming for decades.  They are a dying breed…

Lanza’s, on 1st Avenue in the East Village has served the neighborhood for more than a century.  In its heyday the area was strongly Italian, and it’s doubtful that the menu has changed much since that era.  It’s a cliche to say a restaurant has food that “grandma would make”, but if the sentiment is to be applied, this is the place.  The food is basic and isn’t earth-shattering, but it certainly hits the spot.  In a city where cuisine is constantly re-interpreted, Lanza’s is refreshingly plain.  The decor is what one might expect – murals of Vesuvius and the like.  There is a backyard that is wonderful in the warm season, and afterwards you can hit up the neighboring Di Robertis pastry shop, itself from 1904, or Veniero’s , which dates to 1894.

I once had a colleague whose parents lived above Lanza’s after emigrating from Sicily.  During the 1920’s, on the occasion of a wedding or funeral, the restaurant would prepare a spread and deliver it for free.  There is also a history of the place being a stop for 20th century mafiosi.

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Across town, is Spain, a restaurant dating from the 1960’s.  The decor is sparse – the emphasis is on the gracious service and the food, which is excellent.  Every order comes with a spread of free small plates – chorizo, meatballs, mussels, or whatever else is being made.  Salad comes in a plastic 60’s era bowl.  The waiters pull out the chair for you and place your napkin on your lap.  Like Lanza’s, the dishes are straightforward – seafood stews, paella, etc. And like Lanza’s, many of the patrons are longtime regulars.

If you’re not in the mood for a full-on dinner, you can sit at the bar, have a 4$ glass of wine, and they will still bring you free tapas!

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It’s said that 90 percent of Lanza’s costumers are long-time regulars.  Both it, and Spain, are decidedly unhip, and are not attracting younger people the way they once did.  The waiters themselves are pushing the age ceiling.  All indicators point to an inevitable demise, especially given the prime real estate they inhabit.  I imagine the sharks are already circling.  It is a shame – these are the last places of their kind.  But New York is not good to the old –

Both places are reasonably priced and certainly worth a visit.

My photo in Gothamist

Major NYC blog, Gothamist.com, used my photo for a piece last night –

http://gothamist.com/2012/03/02/extra_extra_2191.phpImage

This was taken on Wednesday at Bryant Park, right before OWS’s march on Bank of America and other Midtown financial headquarters (as part of a national day of action that saw demonstrations across the nation).

Even the police were cracking smiles at this comic relief.  Though about 15 minutes later, one of their clown friends was arrested.