It’s almost cliche to say this, but the phrase continues to reverberate: New York is a nice place to live, but don’t even think of living here if you make less than x dollars. To some extent, it is a recent development – with the “quality of life” crimes which Guilliani enacted to target victimized populations, followed by Mayor Bloomberg’s recent economic cleansing of NYC and the advent of the condo dweller/deluded small-town hipster. But this crushing inequality has existed since the inception of the city – New York has never been particularly kind to the working class, to say nothing of the impoverished. Triangle, David Von Drehle’s history of one of the worst industrial accidents in US history, is manifest evidence that even during NYC’s “Gilded Age“, people were considered secondary to products and profits.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire may have lasted for less than an hour, but it embodied the bloody nature of industrial capitalism in the burgeoning capital of the world. The fire itself was the result of unbelievably poor safety standards in what amounted to a ten story tinder box. A fire inevitably broke out, and in the course of a handful awful minutes, killed around 140 workers, some of whom burned to death, or asphyxiated from the smoke, or even horrifically throwing themselves desperately out of the windows.
Triangle goes into that terrible incident in nauseating depth. But it is the atmosphere and the working conditions of a largely non-unionized factory district, and the ramifications of the event itself (namely the political fallout and the shape of labour, feminism and progressive ideology) that form the bedrock of Von Drehle’s masterful account.
New York at the turn of the century can be seen as the open maw of a conveyer belt, in which tens of thousands of Jews and Italians took the place formerly occupied by the Irish and German immigrants at the bottom rung of New York society. The Jews had escaped hellish pogroms in Eastern Europe and especially Russia, and had decided to gamble on a better life in the New World, the Golden Land.
The immigrants were largely shelved in the slums of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and found employment as sewers, rag-pickers, bakers, fishmongers and every other hot, unpleasant job that you can think of. The term “sweatshop” was coined during this period, describing the tiny tenement apartment buildings where piecemeal work was produced on a nearly 24 hour schedule, by every age and gender. Unions were difficult to organize; not only did prospective union organizers face violent suppression at the hands of the state (this was still the period in which the notorious Tammany Hall political machine ran Manhattan like fiefdom), but the work itself was disorganized. There was always fresh meat arriving by the boatload, so entire work-forces could be fired and replaced within a matter of days.
The turn of the 20th Century marked a confrontation and escalation of these antagonist bodies, the workers versus the employers. Labour became centralized, as employers found it easier and cheaper to house all of their work force under one roof, even if the work routine consisted of the same drudgery. This in turn emboldened the formerly isolated workers, who managed to band together and form unions as a result of this conglomeration.
If any of this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Nowadays we don’t tend to have sweatshops within eye-sight, but that simply means that they have been transferred elsewhere, where the labour pool is cheap, desperate, and easily controlled. And as in the case with the Triangle fire, terrible industrial accidents occur regularly, as slave labour is not only inexpensive, it’s also replaceable. Safety issues abound in the sweatshops of today, including the recent catastrophe at Loblaw’s factory in Bangladesh, where the entire factory collapsed and killed dozens; it is only one of many such disasters which have eerie precedents in America. For more information regarding this recurring process of desperate people taking dangerous jobs, one need only pick up the masterful Planet of Slums,by Mike Davies.
Triangle is not the depressing slog it may have become – it ends on a positive note, as the incident marked the turning point of the end of the Tammany machine and the subsequent shift to progressive politics in America’s cities. It is also an indelible document of the Jewish migrant’s experience in the newly forged Promised Land, which occasionally rewarded it’s tremendous working population with freedoms unthought of in the shtetls of East Europe.
This is social history at its finest, a labour (so to speak) of years of time and research into the forgotten history of Manhattan. You’ll finish it in a few days, and cry out for more of this bravura social history.