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Commemorating the Fire

Esther Cohen
March 16, 2017

by Esther Cohen

RUTH SERGEL is a deeply original visual and performance artist and filmmaker, the author of See You in the Streets: Art, Action, and Remembering the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, published last year by the University of Iowa Press. The book, she says, “is a chronicle of how I learned to be an activist, how to work over many years. It’s funny and honest and tells the story of the roller coaster of organizing.” An organizer all her life, she is the founder of Voices of 9/11, The Chalking Project (usually just called Chalk) , and national coordinator of the large centennial celebration of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. She’s currently living in Berlin and New York, where I sat down with her for a conversation.

Esther Cohen: Tell us about the chalking project and how it began.

Ruth Sergel: It’s a memorial that only exists if people are willing to make a public action and stand for the Triangle Workers Each Year. I began the project because another project I’d done, Voices of 9/11, was taken away from me. I had always wanted to do something about the Triangle Fire, but I had only bad ideas for many years, until I finally thought of chalking. Each year, on the anniversary of the fire, people go to the homes of the Triangle workers who perished and write their names on the sidewalk, and that they died on March 25, 1911 in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.

This year is the thirteenth for this project. Last year, about sixty-five teams joined to memorialize 146 people.

EC: Why the Triangle Fire?

RS: I read Leon Stein’s book about the fire when I was a young girl, and I was very moved by it. It made a big impression on me. I didn’t know if it had that same weight for other people until many years later. The notion of justice deferred struck a chord. Growing up Jewish, and being about the same age or younger as the women who lost their lives, might be one reason. The owners got off without penalty, and that is an injustice that we all carry.

When I started chalk, I learned more and more through a kaleidoscopic vision, there were many people involved. As my consciousness grew, the story could continue to hold it: Italian women, labor people, Jewish and Italian America, and fire and safety people, were all affected. As the story got bigger, I learned more.

EC: What is your vision for how this should be commemorated?

RS: My vision is about public action. I wanted to make a memorial that involved an active public intervention, like chalking. We need to build those muscles.

EC: How do you find people to participate?

RS: The first year, I emailed about thirty friends. Now it’s very organic: I have people who have relatives who died in the fire, or people who have seen the project and email me. I have classrooms participating, and school groups.

EC: What are other issues that you’d like to address today? What ideas do you have for future projects?

RS: Right now, I’m very interested in truth and reconciliation meetings and how they might happen. I’m working on finding out how these conversations could take place.

To find out more, or to join in chalking or the Triangle commemoration, contact or visit her website.

Esther Cohen is arts consultant for Jewish Currents and active in the labor arts movement.