Open City: Blogging Urban Change
Past Scars/Terrain/Memory/Duration
By Cristiana Baik


[ Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire ]

Memory: a selective rattle-bin container.

Shadows rather than reflections. Occurring in the background; everyone focuses on the stationary foreground.

Echoes contend, constantly contracting to mediate, fill up that medium of space.

Spaces-in-between: shadows as they take place of.


As mentioned in an earlier post, March 25th, 2011 commemorated the tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire (centennial anniversary).


I pass by the site of the building daily (on campus at NYU). It is now the Brown Building of Science.

The week of March 25th, names of the factory workers were chalked onto the sidewalk. There were also bouquets of flowers, as well as a poster board listing all the names of those who died in the tragedy.

The ninth floor, which is where almost all the 146 garment workers (mostly all first generation immigrant women) died in the fire, is occupied by a series of offices and laboratories. It houses N.Y.U’s Center for Development Genetics, where scientists and students study “such matters as the development of the double-chambered heart in sea squirts.” Physically, the building itself survived the fire, and was “refurbished” by NYU (before being sold off to a private speculator, Frederick Brown, who then donated it back to NYU).

It sounds distant and abstract to say that I knew about the history of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, but somehow never seemed to notice that I pass by the site so frequently that it is now a part of my engrained daily route: classes to work to the library back to classes.

“I pass the site”: when I first wrote this, I typed “former” in front of “site,” but “former” relates only to duration. The past — memory — is a strange commemoration, then; as memory also has ways to detach from what it strives to memorialize.

What happens to collective memory built around a cultural scar landscaped onto a geographic locale, when time “refurbishes” the landscape?


All seems to take place as if, in this aggregate of images which I call the universe, nothing really new could happen. . .


I recently interviewed a uniformed Sanitation worker who works for the Department of Sanitation of New York City (DSNY). He was raised in Sunset Park, and his pick-up route now also covers his former home-base of BK 7 (Sunset Park, Windsor Terrace).

His memories of 7th avenue, 40th-50th street (he grew up in Sunset Park during the 70s and 80s): mostly businesses owned by Norwegian and Italian immigrants. All his child-hood friends from the neighborhood were Italian-American.

He could, in detail, point out specific homes that have been passed onto subsequent generations, which also trace out the demographic shifts, changes, that Sunset Park has experienced in the past fifty years.

His recollection of what is now Chinatown: the businesses, homes were owned mostly by Italian families: third, fourth generation. His favorite childhood deli is now a restaurant/bar. His childhood neighborhood is, simultaneously, familiar and unfamiliar.


In an essay written at the turn of the century, when NYC was still becoming the industrial/global circuit-magnet-”mess” that it is today, Georg Simmel wrote that a person who lives in the city — his/her “metropolitan individuality” — is immersed into a “swift and continuous shift of external, internal stimuli,” that arises from the “rapid telescoping of changing images.”

A rapid state of working through, acting upon the telescoping of changing images.

Memory and action. To think, remember, and engage/act beyond commemoration because in connection to tragedies like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, commemoration also is statuesque, enacting a “site” into a “former site.”

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About Open City
Open City: Blogging Urban Change is an interdisciplinary neighborhood blog and community project coordinated by the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. Five commissioned writers, called Organizing Fellows, are working with community organizations and neighborhood folks in Manhattan’s Chinatown/Lower East Side (LES), Flushing, Queens, and Sunset Park, Brooklyn to collect oral histories and interviews, offer commentary about gentrification, neighborhood change, and produce new creative work around these themes. Read more.
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CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities was formed in 1986 (formerly known as the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence) as a response to an increase in anti-Asian hate crimes both in New York City and around the country (which included violence by police officers against Asians).
They have two offices – one in Manhattan’s Chinatown (which houses the Chinatown Tenants Union, and the new Asian Youth in Action organizing project) and the Youth Leadership Project office in the Bronx – and have members from all over the city. Over the years, CAAAV’s main campaigns have focused on community-based organizing work rooted in Asian immigrant and refugee communities. Although their advocacy and organizing work is focused mainly in Manhattan’s Chinatown and the northwest Bronx, CAAAV’s work also touches upon larger issues (such as affordable housing, war, and immigration) shaping communities all over the world: “Our work is primarily centered around issues facing New Yorkers, but always with a global analysis.”
CAAAV’s mission is to organize and build the power of working-class Asian immigrants, refugees, and youth to change concrete conditions and participate in a broader social justice movement. In the past, CAAAV’s work included organizing South Asian taxi drivers, Korean women workers, and Filipina domestic workers. Several of these organizing projects have gone on to become their own organizations, such as the New York Taxi Workers Alliance and Domestic Workers United. CAAAV’s current work focus on three different program areas: Read more.

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Manhattan CB3 Land Use, Zoning, Public & Private Housing Committee
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