Triangle: The Fire That Changed America – David Von Drehle

triangleDuring my first semester at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice many years ago, I attended a class in the field of fire science as part of my graduate degree track.  In the class, we, were required to study one of the deadliest fires in New York City history: the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25, 1911.  Our professor warned us that the story was deeply disturbing and that the detailed descriptions of the victims would be beyond grisly.  However, he also explained that as part of the basis for a career in fire protection, we needed to understand the life safety code and the stories of how and why fire protection has continued to advance. Today, nearly twenty-three years later, I still recall the fire and its impact on workplace safety.  But I decided to read this book by David Von Drehle to revisit the fire and perhaps learn something I did not know previously.  And what I found within its pages, is a story much longer story than the one I had learned of over two decades ago.  And similar to when I first read about the fire in college, I also felt chills go down my spine this time around.   

The author does not go into the fire right away but takes a slightly different approach in explaining working conditions for garment factory workers, which included a disproportionate amount of women.  Workers’ rights were not as widespread as today and in fact, it was not until the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s (1882-1945) New Deal policies that the right of private workers to unionize became federal law.  Prior to this, employees in the private sector were often at the mercy of their employers. Working conditions were dire and low wages the norm.  However, workers were not inclined to accept these conditions long term and as we see in the story, they began to resist what they felt were inhumane conditions. Many of the garment workers were European immigrants, some of whom spoke little to no English.  They were easy prey coming off boats arriving in Ellis Island and willing to work for low but steady wages.  Two European entrepreneurs named Max Blanck and Isaac Harris formed the Triangle Waist Company and chose the eighth, ninth and tenth floors of the Asch Building located at 23-29 Washington Place.  Today it is known as the Brown Building and is part of New York University (NYU).  They begin to hire locals, many of them young women whose first language is Yiddish.  The author introduces us to many of them and allows us to learn their stories, some of which contain obscure parts lost to history.  Many of them are younger than twenty-five years of age.  Some are single, others married or engaged but all of them are eager to earn wages to support their families which were sometimes struggling to survive.  On March 25, 1911, their monotonous routine was changed forever after a fire broke out due to a series of events that would be discovered in the wake of the tragedy. 

I must warn readers that the story is very dark and there are no “happy endings”. This case study is about a deadly fire that took the lives of one hundred forty six men and women.  Due to the material contained on each floor, the fire had plenty of fuel and the lack of adequate fire protection only served to accelerate the spread of the flames and smoke.  When the workers realized a fire had started, all hell literally broke loose. Through survivors’ testimonies, we are able to piece the story together and witness the frantic activity that commenced as workers tried desperately to escape what became a deathtrap.  And in the three minutes it took for all of this to take place, New York City and America were changed forever.  However, what we learn following the tragedy is equally as important and regrettable.  Drehle points out some very disturbing facts about the owners and previous incidents that should have served as a major warning of what was to come. And this comment about the fire is beyond sobering: 

The Triangle fire of March 25, 1911, was for ninety years the deadliest workplace disaster in New York history—and the most important. Its significance was not simply the number dead. The 146 deaths at the Triangle Waist Company were sensational, but they were not unusual.

But in a city where politics were controlled by the infamous Tammany Hall and corruption was an open secret, compliance was not always high on anyone’s agenda.  But in the wake of the fire, action was swift and notable figures take center stage such as former New York Governor Al Smith 1873-1944) and Francis Perkins (1880-1965) who served as U.S. Secretary of Labor from 1933-1945.  As part of the Factory Investigation Committee, she and her colleagues would embark on mission to reform factories all across America. Their story is included here as well. 

The infamous owners of the company do not escape scrutiny and the author gives a summary of their trial.  Represented by famed trial lawyer Max Steuer (1870-1940) the duo mounts a defense to escape conviction but they would never again achieve the success they had prior to the fire.  And the statements given by survivors, some of which are included in the summary of the trial highlight the negligence by the two as the bosses of the factory.  During the trial, dozens of witnesses were called including a fire chief whose statements about what he witnessed upon arriving at the scene will make readers recoil in shock and disbelief.  The memories they recall are not for the faint at heart. But they are necessary even today to understand why workplace safety is so critical. The trial’s ending is another turn in the story and the efforts of the survivors’ families serve as a last turn at the plate.  As the book concludes, Blanck and Harris fade into obscurity but the fire that occurred  at their factory continues to live on in the annals of American history. 

If you are a New York City history buff you may already know this story.  And if you live in the Big Apple such as myself, you have probably walked past the Asch building hundreds of times without realizing what took place there many years ago.  It was there that the lives and dreams of the new immigrant workers who had recently arrived in America were destroyed and lost.  And for those that did survive, their lives were never the same again.  Today, the conditions learned of in the book would be unheard of and citations would be forthcoming immediately upon discovery.  However in 1911, New York City was a very different place where tenements and slums were prevalent and employee safety was not a pressing concern.  Drehle explains just how widespread tenements were and what their living conditions were like when he remarks: 

In 1909, there were more than one hundred thousand tenement buildings in New York City. About a third of them had no lights in the hallways, so that when a resident visited the common toilet at night it was like walking lampless in a mine. Nearly two hundred thousand rooms had no windows at all, not even to adjoining rooms. A quarter of the families on the Lower East Side lived five or more to a room. They slept on pallets, on chairs, and on doors removed from their hinges. They slept in shifts.

It was from these tenements that many of the garment factory workers came as they sought employment even if it meant risking their lives. And until the fire, very few had a voice in they manner in which they worked.  Sadly, it took a tragedy such as the Shirtwaist Factory to change the way people thought about protecting them and other employees across America.  Some of you who read this will shed tears as you go through the book and that is okay for I too found myself gripped with emotion as the image of the factory floor consumed by fire formed in my mind.  I also felt the sense of grief that consumed family members as they identified their loved ones on the streets of Manhattan that night.  The magnitude of the fire cannot be overstated, this was an event that truly did change American history.  And the hauntingly true is captured here in a book that will satisfy any reader in search of the truth regarding the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. 

ASIN : B004RPY48I

The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream – Patrick Radden Keefe

RaddenIn the early morning hours of June 6, 1993, a shipping vessel named the Golden Venture ran aground at Rockaway Beach in Queens, New York.  National Park Service officers began to inspect the incident and noticed human figures jumping over the sides of the boat and scurrying out of the light.  It soon became clear that the ship was carrying human cargo, more specifically, Chinese men and women being smuggled into the United States. The next day, my parents, brother and I watched the news broadcasts in shock.  But what none of us realized was that the smuggling of human beings into the country had been taking place right under our noses. However, my father who was undoubtedly the most street savvy out of the group remarked that people have been smuggled into the United States for years.  But looking back, I do not believe that even he knew the scope of the operation.  Patrick Radden Keefe, the author of the phenomenal Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Irelandjourneyed into the Chinese underworld and explored the complicated network of international human smuggling. And what he found is a story that will surely be remembered for years to come.

Readers may be surprised to hear that the Golden Venture incident is only part of the full  story. It is however, the culmination of a series of critical events that take place over the course of the book.  The story begins in Chinatown where a Chinese immigrant from the Shengmei in Fujian Province named Cheng Chui Ping (1949-2014) and her husband Cheung Yick Tak operate a variety story and other small business ventures.  On the street she was known as Big Sister Ping, the woman to whom all went if they also hailed from  Fujian.  As a native New Yorker, I admit that I did have some embarrassment at my lack of knowledge of the importance of Fujian and Chinese immigration to the United States.  Reefe provides some very interesting information and I was surprised to learn that even Chinatown was split and may be split today, between different demographics within the Chinese community itself. Further, he provides a very thorough discussion on the history of Chinese immigration in America, and makes sure to include the good, the bad and the even the regrettable.  Readers who are interested in learning more about the Asian American experience will highly appreciate Roger Daniels’ Asian America: Chinese and Japanese in the United States Since 1850, which is invaluable in understanding Chinese and Japanese immigration to America.

As the book progresses, Sister Ping emerges as a titan in the New York Chinese-American community, providing an invaluable link between new immigrants to America and their native homeland. The money comes pouring and smuggling proves to be a highly lucrative business, with uninterested authorities oblivious to a vast network operating freely across several continents.  With the arrival of Fujianese immigrants also came the darker underworld controlled by the tongs, the gangs that preyed on Chinese businesses and in some cases, turned Lower Manhattan into a shooting gallery.   The central Fuk Ching tong figure is Guo Liang Qi who is known simply as Ah Kay. This simple and unassuming immigrant becomes one of the most important figures in the book and permanently intertwined in the story of Big Sister Ping.

The discovery of the Golden Venture left many Americans scratching their heads.  But surprisingly, not everyone was in shock. In fact, Reefe shows that Washington knew far more about Chinese smuggling than it led the American people to believe.  And in New York City, officials with the Immigration and Naturalization Service were well acquainted with Sister Ping, who surprisingly, had been previously apprehended near Buffalo, New York.  The authorities and Ping engage in a cat and mouse game in which the smugglers know the authorities are watching but unable to make any significant headway.  But all of that changes after the “Beeper Store” murders which placed Ah Kay high on the list of most wanted fugitives.  The grisly fallout from the murders at the store and the inhumane deaths occurring at the hands of smugglers started to awaken the sleeping giant and soon, people in high places within the U.S. Government began to take notice of the growing Chinese underground smuggling ring. And by the time of Ping’s demise, even the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had its hand in the jar.  But incredibly, official policy in Washington seemed to facilitate the very thing that many sought to eliminate.  Actions by the administration of George H. W. Bush (1924-2018) are examined in detail and will leave some readers shaking their heads at what could be described as an incredible lack of foresight.

One part of the story that stands out is the sort or revolving door aspect to the early arrests that take place of Sister Ping, Yick Tak and others.  Few stay in custody for long and eventually make their way back to Chinatown.  The author leaves it up to the readers to decide how they were able to manage such feats but I believe that those closely following the story will quickly put two and two together. Some secrets of Ping’s first arrest and that of her husband are carefully hidden from public light. However, they are only a small part of a story that becomes far more disturbing as the focus moves from New York to the South China Sea and Southeast Asia where Ping is continuing to operate after exiting stage left from New York.  The events that take place in the South China Sea are crucial to the journey of the Golden Venture, originally known as the Tong Sern.  At this point in the book, it becomes clear how the Golden Venture’s final journey began to take shape and the doom that awaited the men and women on board.

After running aground, the passengers aboard the Golden Venture were in for yet another journey, this one through the United States immigration system.  At this point in the book, the story takes yet another turn as Washington finds itself in a tough predicament.  I had always wondered what happened to the people on the Golden Venture and could not recall what became of them.  While I did remember that they were detained as illegal aliens, I was not aware of their ordeal after surviving the journey across the seas.  I am sure that readers may be divided on the Government’s response in this situation.  Some may argue that there was no perfect way to deal with the survivors while others may feel they should have been deported immediately.  What is clear is that they became a political football that landed into the lap of President William Jefferson Clinton.   Ultimately, Clinton makes a final decision that one would assume solved the plight of the passengers.  However, that is not the case and Reefe follows their journeys across America in the country that would become a new home for some of them.   A few of the stories are uplifting and others not so much.  But each highlights the lengths to which people will go for a new life in America. And Reefe does an excellent job of driving home that point.

Sister Ping figures prominently throughout the book and her final capture is straight out of the playbook of Interpol.  However, how she was eventually captured does provoke deep thought and produces even deeper questions.   Mysteriously, records pertaining to the case of her husband Yick Tak, who was arrested shortly before Ping for the second time, remained sealed.  However, her subsequent trial and conviction are explained by the author and even includes snippets of Ping’s bizarre rants in the courtroom.   The fall of big sister was fast and furious but she was only one in a large network of smugglers who see big money to be made by helping those in achieving their dreams of moving to the United States.  To the very last moment, Ping remained defiant and some statements she makes will cause readers to wonder if one person can be that out of touch with reality.   On August 24, 2014, Ping died at the Federal Medical Center Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas. She was sixty-five years old and left behind a legacy that remains intact to those who have come from Fujian and made a new home in America.  But to authorities, her arrest and downfall was a sweet victory following years of investigative work and tragic discoveries of other failed ventures destined for the shores of America.  She may be gone but to a large number of immigrants she will always be known as Big Sister Ping.  And this is the story of the Snakehead, the underground network that opened the eyes of many to the paths taken by those who risk life and death to live the American dream.

ASIN: B002HMJZAA

Unbought and Unbossed: Expanded 40th Anniversary Edition – Shirley Chisholm with Scott Simpson, Donna Brazile and Shola Lynch

ChisholmMany years before Hilary Clinton decided to run for the office of President of the United States, there was another politician who had eyes on the White House. And although she did not win the Democratic nomination, she earned a significant amount of votes and in the process, showed that a women candidates were more acceptable to society than many have long believed.  Her name was Shirley Anita Chisholm (1924-2005) and through sheer determination, she launched a political campaign that challenged many accepted norms in American society and helped to break down barriers, even today.  In January, 2019, thirty-six women joined the House of Representatives following the success by Democrats in the 2018 mid-term elections.  The number is now the record for the most women in the House of Representatives and if current trends are an indication, that number will continue to grown through future elections.

If Chisholm were alive today, she would have been thrilled and satisfied with the election of Barack Obama and the current roster of Congresswomen.  Their elections to office would serve as confirmation that her life and struggle helped pave the way for women and minority candidates. This is her story in which she invites the reader into her personal life so that we can learn more about the first Black-American woman to run for president.

The first thing that I noticed about the book is the formatting.  I chose the Kindle version and the text alignment is in dire need of correction.  Other buyers have commented on the same issue.  Putting that aside, the story is intriguing from start to finish and will satisfy any reader interested in Chisholm’s life.  She was a product of Brooklyn, New York, born to immigrant parents from the Caribbean island of Barbados.  From an early age, her life was anything but ordinary and throughout the book, we see that she possessed an uncanny drive and found herself typically in the right place at the right time.  As she admits herself, politics was not her first choice as a career.  But her fate was destined and through a series of events beyond her control, she makes her way into the political field of New York City, a Democrat stronghold.

To say that the book is inspiring is an understatement. Incredibly and sadly, it is only around two hundred pages but within those pages, is a wealth of wisdom that Chisholm passes on to those who are willing to listed.  Her rise in politics to the position of congresswoman was a feat that many thought she could never pull off.  But as the book progresses, it is clear that Chisholm was never a typical candidate.  Her outspokenness, intelligence and fierce independence made her both an outcast and threat. Today, she would be labeled anti-establishment.  But is a price that she was more than willing to pay in defense of her core beliefs. Her refusal to conform and tow the line is part of what keeps her legacy alive to this day.

However, not all of her story is smiles and cheers.  She also reveals some of the darker moments in her life and how they changed her view on the world in which she was attempting to make her name known.   Her relationship with her mother, is a case study for the many challenges American-born children face with regards to foreign-born parents. And yes, there is also the issue of race, which she addresses as well.  However,  I noticed that it does not take over the book but is mentioned only when necessary.   Chisholm is speaking to everyone, about America as a nation and the many problems that existed then and still exist now, regardless of race.

To some, it may be regrettable that many of the things she discusses are still an issue. It may seem as if America has not learned much over the past fifty years. However, I do believe significant progress has been made and I feel that Chisholm would agree.  I am confident that one day in the near future, America will have a female president.   Whomever she is, she will have to confront many of the issues that faced Chisholm more than forty years ago.  But if we remember her advice and keep our sights on the long-term goals, then the first woman president can be successful and become a beloved figure with a legacy to match.

This book should belong to the library of any woman running for public office or considering a political campaign.  These words are the truth about the challenges women have faced and continue to face, as they amass a higher standing in American politics.   Chisholm’s life, here on display, was a mix of love, God, education, success and motivation.   If you have the time, sit back and listen to Shir speak in this truly good read.

ASIN: B008PINHIG

Mole People: Life in the Tunnels Beneath New York City – Jennifer Toth

Mole PeopleA subway ride through the underground portion of the New York City Transit system can reveal far more than most might anticipate.  And if you find yourself on a train passing through lower Manhattan, you might pick up images of abandoned stations or long-lost passages through the windows of the subway car, forgotten with time as relics of the City’s storied past.  The system itself is truly is a modern marvel that continues to be renovated and upgraded.   But there are still many parts that remain hidden, known only to workers of the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) and possibly others who have dwelled in prohibited areas far removed from the sight of strap-hangers.  In the 1980s, the City saw a rise is the number of people living beneath the sidewalks, in crevices, tubes and tunnels buried far below the surface.   The total number of underground dwellers will most-likely never be known. But their existence is a telling sign of the extremes some people go to when living on the streets.  Jennifer Toth, stepped into this world, largely unknown even to those that live in New York City.  Some may call her foolish and others may feel that she was courageous.  I believe that she had a mix of many things as she covered the lives of those she met as she explored a completely unknown and different world that could only seem to exist in fiction.

There is a section in the book where one city worker describes the dwellers as a CHUD or Cannibalistic Underground Humanoid Dweller.   The name sounds ridiculous but was probably taken from the 1984 B-grade horror film of the same name directed by Douglas Cheek and starring the late John Heard (1946-2017) and a young Daniel Stern.   In the film, a court injunction has prevented the removal of radioactive material currently sitting under New York City.  The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is unable to transport the material out of the City.  The homeless soon become exposed to the toxic sludge and are transformed into cannibalistic monsters that come above ground at night to hunt.   Highly imaginative and campy, the film is a fun ride for those who are aficionados of 1980s horror films and the movie holds a place in my own collection.  The majority of the film is purely imagination but the people who lived underground was quite close to reality.  And in this book, Jennifer Toth shows what the movie did not explore for obvious reasons.

Some of the people she interviewed for the book gave their real names while others preferred a pseudonym. Geographically, their locations were spread out across the city with the majority of the scenes taking place below Penn and Grand Central Stations.  Seville, Black, Brenda, Blade and Bernard are just some of the many dwellers that Toth encountered in the course of her research. Other figures who cast a darker tone are mentioned briefly in passing sections.   Shockingly, some of them came from good homes, graduated from college and possessed advanced degrees.   Abuse, drugs and dysfunction at home proved to be the common link between many of them and fueled their decision to go underground where it was “safe” from above. In the interviews they are highly articulate, aware of their surroundings and should be productive members of society.  And even more surprising,  some of them preferred to live underground.  But there also exist, another group of people, who ended up underground as an escape from lives that could be classified as hell on earth.

Each person has their own reason for moving underground but what emerges in the book, is an underground network of tunnels, caves and passageways akin to a city of its own where surface dwellers are not welcome and those who come down below are seen with the highest level of suspicion.  It is a world many of us could never imagine living in, let alone raising a child in as can been seen in the book.  The descriptions of the tunnels are graphic and those with a weak stomach will need a strong resolve to make it through some chapters.  Life underground is gritty, dirty and beyond dangerous. It is not for the faint at heart.  But miraculously, Toth was never seriously injured while conducting the interviews.  She may have had someone watching over her combined with an unusual amount of good luck or perhaps she did on the one thing that many above ground could never do for the people below and that is to simply listen.  Whether some of them embellished their tales is a strong possibility.  Drug addiction and mental health issues are largely prevalent in many of them and could possibly have played a role in the accounts that they give.  But what is accurate is the former existence of a large number of underground dwellers beneath the City.

The book was completed in 1993 and to my knowledge, there is no follow-up to the story nor would I expect there to be.  Her experience with Blade as detailed towards the end of the book is beyond enough to make anyone think twice about returning.  Some of the characters may still be alive today while others may have left the tunnels or died along the way.   In recent years, I cannot recall any discussion of the mole people and most of them have probably been relocated by City officials as the tunnels were cleaned up and the underground squatters permanently removed.  Some of them may still live underground, firmly hidden from prying eyes, but the number is probably far lower than the 1990s when the epidemic reached its height.

The book is revealing and sure to leave many readers in a state of shock.  New Yorkers unaware of the mole people of the 1980s and 1990s will find this book to be eye-opening about the city they call home.   The book shows the ability of humans to adapt to nearly anything and the lengths people will go to in their efforts to survive. This is a haunting look at life in a city beneath a city.

ISBN-10: 155652241X
ISBN-13: 978-1556522413