A Tragedy That Made a Difference

triangle fire
The scene at the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, Saturday 25 March 1911

One hundred years ago today, 146 people died in a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in New York City. The victims were primarily young immigrant Jewish and Italian women. Many died when they jumped from the upper floors to the concrete sidewalks below. At the time it was the largest industrial accident in the history of the United States, and was hugely reported on by the press. Over 400,000 New Yorkers watched in the funeral procession in the pouring rain.

The company’s owners were prosecuted but got off quite lightly. This, coupled with the enormous tragedy, marked a turning point. Unions such as the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union became stronger. New York passed laws  increasing workplace safety, and other states followed suit. In a very real way, many future lives were saved in the safer workplaces that resulted from the tragedy of the Triangle Fire. The names of these 146 men and women have not been forgotten.

More coverage of the Triangle Fire centennial:

The Immigrant Experience

One hundred years ago today, 10 June 1910, my grandmother and her older sister stepped off the S. S. Neckar onto Ellis Island in New York City. They had left Palermo, Sicily on 28 May.

Last night I was listening to a podcast of an interview with novelist Isabel Allende, who was went into exile from her native Chile in 1973 after a military coup. Her words speak for the experiences of millions of others:

It’s very hard to leave behind everything that is familiar and go to another place to make a life. You do that only because you’re desperate, because going back is worse. But the dream of what you leave behind stays with people, and it haunts the first generation.

Being an exile is very different from being an immigrant. An immigrant, ultimately, chooses to go. The person in exile has no choice. In that case, the only way out is going back. So they never unpack, and in their minds they’re always waiting to go back. An immigrant looks to the future. An exile looks to the past.

What I try to tell the immigrants my foundation works with is “You can live in the United States, you can adapt here, you can get to love this country the way I love it, without losing any of what you bring with you. You don’t have to lose the language, you don’t have to lose the traditions, the food, the family. No! The idea is to add, add as much as possible, and be totally bi-cultural.” But immigrants don’t understand that, because they feel so alien, so left out, that they think if they don’t become American, completely Americanized, they will never belong. But I say “You will never belong anyhow. Your children will. So forget about it. Your children will, and you will always have a foot there and foot here. And that’s ok. That’s the way it is.”

Novelist Isabel Allende, speaking at the San Francisco Jewish Community Center on 14 September 2009

To the memory of my grandmother, Onofria Napoli, 1894-1977.

Leaving the Old Country forever

On the mezzanine of the Berkeley restaurant Trattoria La Siciliana, there is a reproduction of a vintage Italian poster. It advertises the 1910 Palermo Festival, held from the 1st to the 7th of May, culminating with an airplane show above the city harbor. Just three weeks after that airshow, from the same harbor, my 16-year-old grandmother took perhaps the most emotional steps of her life.

Palermo Festival 1910
Poster for the Palermo Festival, 1-7 May 1910

Exactly 100 years ago today, 28 May 1910, my grandmother Onofria Napoli, along with her older sister Antonia, boarded a ship in Palermo and sailed for America, never to return. The Napoli family emigrated in the classic fashion: the oldest brother left in 1903 and, over time, sent money back to Sicily so the next brother could leave in 1905. They were followed by another brother and the two sisters in 1910, and finally, the two youngest brothers in 1923. Of the nine children, only two stayed in Sicily.

How hard life must have been in Italy to make an immigrant’s lot in America seem better! My grandmother, along with most of her siblings, went into the tailoring industry in Chicago. I have a photograph, dating from about 1915, of a large room inside a clothing manufacturing company. There are about thirty people in the room, most hunched over sewing machines. My grandmother is there, and two seats away is her future husband, my grandfather. Almost everyone is dressed well: the men in matching shirts, vests and neckties. I wonder why this photograph was taken: publicity? It definitely doesn’t resemble any of the unsettling, oft-published photographs of sweatshops full of unhappy immigrants.

June 10th will be the centennial of my grandmother’s arrival at Ellis Island—two weeks in a ship across the Atlantic Ocean, with goodness knows how many other immigrants—and in a perfect world, I would visit Ellis Island on June 10th to celebrate the occasion. Unfortunately, that trip won’t be possible; I’ll have to go another time. Perhaps on the centennial of my grandfather’s arrival at Ellis Island in 2011.

I can’t help but think of a story told by the late biologist and author Stephen Jay Gould in his book I Have Landed. His grandfather, a Hungarian Jew, sailed from Antwerp on 31 August 1901, and later annotated his English grammar book with “I have landed, Sep 11th 1901” One hundred years later, on 11 Sep 2001, Gould was flying from Europe to New York City to be at Ellis Island for the centennial of his grandfather’s arrival—and we all know what happened that day. Gould’s plane from Milan landed in Halifax instead. Here is an excerpt from his essay “September 11, ’01”

Especially in a technological age, when airplanes can become powerful bombs, rare acts of depravity seem to overwhelm our landscape, both geographical and psychological. But the ordinary human decency of a billion tiny acts of kindness, done by millions of good people, sets a far more powerful counterwieght, too often invisible for lack of comparable “news value.” The trickle of one family that began on September 11, 1901, multipled by so many million similar and “ordinary” stories, will overwhelm the evil of a few on September 11, 2001.

My family’s trickle began one hundred years ago today. Here’s to you, Grandma.

Remember when stores were closed on holidays?

I had to run some errands today: Trader Joe’s, Petco and the hardware store. Lots of other people were out shopping too. When I was a kid, of course, this would not have been possible—nothing was open on Easter Sunday. All the stores were closed on all the holidays: Thanksgiving, Christmas, Lincoln’s Birthday, July 4th, Memorial Day, Labor Day… So people learned to shop ahead. Even if we weren’t having guests over for holiday dinner, Mom didn’t want to run out of bread or milk with three kids in the house. (For that matter, one had to shop ahead every week: fresh bread wasn’t available on Wednesdays and Sundays. My father always went out on Saturday mornings to buy warm French bread, just off the delivery truck.)

America, at least, has turned 180° — now stores are open 365 days a year. I didn’t bother to check whether Trader Joe’s or Petco would be open, because I knew they would. I wasn’t so sure about the hardware store (a local independent), but it turns out I needn’t have worried.

In contrast, my favorite bakery, Cheeseboard, in the “Gourmet Ghetto” area of Berkeley, is a throwback to the old days. They close for all sorts of celebrations: May Day, Columbus Day (here called Indigenous Peoples Day), winter vacation, summer vacation. If you want your bread, pizza and cheese, you have to watch their calendar and plan ahead.

During a trip to France years ago, Arlene and I stopped in Lyon for a few days. One particular Thursday we walked to a museum, only to find it was locked up. Suddenly it occurred to us that the streets were unusually quiet. Oh no, is this a holiday? we groaned. We asked an elderly lady on the street, who told us that, mais oui, today was Pentecost. Zut alors! It hadn’t occurred to me to consult a calendar of Catholic holidays before our trip—something I now do every time we go to Europe. I forget what we did that day, and we did eventually make it back to the museum. But we learned our lesson.

A Tale of Two Ghost Towns

Today the San Francisco Chronicle published an article about Drawbridge, the ghost town in southern San Francisco Bay that I blogged about last month. Author Carolyn Jones reports that Drawbridge, which is off-limits to the public, is slowly sliding down into the mud. The US Fish and Wildlife Service, which administers Drawbridge as part of the Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge, is neither promoting nor preventing decay: they’re simply letting Nature take its course. However, I have no doubt that vibrations from the frequent rail traffic—a dozen or more Amtrak trains zip past every day—hasten the deterioration of the buildings.

The Fish & Wildlife’s approach differs from that used at the famous Sierra Nevada ghost town of Bodie (also the subject of a recent article in the Chronicle), where the State Park Service is actively keeping the town in a state of “arrested decay”; that is, repairing the existing buildings with original materials, so that it continues to look the same year after year.

Today’s article also points out how we are creating modern ghost towns: empty office parks in Silicon Valley and half-built housing developments in the Central Valley, all victims of the recession. Somehow I doubt history will look back upon these with the same romanticism as Drawbridge and Bodie.