New York is so full of large, overwhelming buildings that it is easy to pass right by one without realizing its historic significance. Such is the case with the Brown Building, which is part of the New York University campus and is located near the eastern edge of Greenwich Village. Had I been there 104 years ago today, I would have been at the site of a tragedy, that of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire.
It’s hard to imagine the scene where 146 died needlessly because there were few laws to ensure the safety of workers, and those that were in place were often ignored. But all that changed as the fire raised awareness of the poor working conditions in the city’s many factories and sweatshops. A public that had formerly been apathetic toward poor workers, and in many cases even antagonistic toward them, now clearly saw that changes had to be made.
It probably helped that the factory was located only a block from the affluent Washington Square neighborhood. Many people were out and about on that Saturday afternoon and witnessed the tragedy firsthand.
I’m not going to retell the story of what happened that day, but I strongly recommend watching the American Experience episode that not only tells the story, but also explains the significance of the aftermath.
I think it is interesting that the Brown Building is still in existence. The fire gutted much of the factory which was located on the top three floors, but much of the structure was left unharmed. At any rate, I can imagine that if this happened today the building would be razed.