Friday, March 25, 2011


Today is the centennial of the fire at the Triangle Waist Company factory, which was located on the top three floors of the Asch building at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street in New York City. The factory employed hundreds of garment workers, mostly Jewish and Italian young women who'd recently immigrated to the country, and who now found themselves toiling for 6 or 7 days a week to make shirtwaists (like blouses), for an income of just dollars a week. The workday was ending that Saturday, March 25, 1911, when a fire started on the 8th floor of the building, and spread quickly to the 9th and 10th floors. The factory was crowded, and there were few escape routes -- some were blocked by the voracious flames, another was locked, and the fire escape bucked and fell under the weight of many women trying to escape. While some workers were able to escape through open routes, 146 others died by fire or by falling or jumping from the building. The fire became a potent symbol of the need for better workplace safety conditions, and spurred a great deal of union organizing, resulting in a wave of regulations on workplace safety. Starting on the 50th anniversary (when Eleanor Roosevelt and others spoke at the location of the fire, and at Brooklyn's Evergreens Cemetery, where some of the victims are buried), the fire has been commemorated every year. 

The last survivor of the fire died years ago, and yet the story of the catastrophe still resonates today. I say "story" rather than "stories" advisedly, because there is the iconic story of the fire -- the poor working conditions, the oppressive bosses, the immigrant women jumping to their deaths to avoid the flames that would have otherwise consumed them. The story has attained a mythic status -- not in the sense of its being untrue, but rather in the sense of how it embodies cultural ideals of immigration, labor, the importance of unions. Maybe enormous events like this inevitably take on the qualities of myth or legend, whether because the details get lost in the passage of time, or because so few of us are likely to take the time to learn more than the broad strokes of the narrative. It may also be because the story is only useful as a cultural touchstone if it is mythologized. For every historical event or figure like this, there is a public or collective memory that has to be so capacious as to allow a broad array of private memories. But sometimes, when people's private memories assign such radically different meanings to an event -- 9/11 is an obvious example -- the public memory is fought over.  I don't see the same kind of contest over the meaning of the Triangle fire, but maybe that's because I'm in New York City, and not in Wisconsin or Ohio where union battles are being fought so publicly right now. If anything, perhaps anti-union forces today would say not that the Triangle fire has some totally alternate meaning -- for example, that it indicates the need for less safety -- but rather that it is irrelevant. In other words, the fight, if there is one, may not be over what meaning the fire (and the story of the fire) has today, but whether it has meaning. The many memorials and online exhibits about the fire implicitly argue for the relevance of the event today, and explore the fire more in detail -- making of it not just one story, but many. 

A few online resources. The Asch building is today the Brown Building at New York University, which has an exhibit about the fire, with an online component here.  The New York Times has a fantastic array of stories, including one about an amateur genealogist who uncovered the names of the previously anonymous victims of the fire, another about Jewish victims of the fire, and so on. And then the Triangle Fire Open Archive invites anyone to contribute items of relevance to commemorate the fire; the archive has reached 100 items, and includes artworks, poems, stories, a Senate declaration on the fire's centennial, the recreation of a union rally, and more.

Sunday, March 20, 2011


In San Francisco, the "Vanguard Revisited" project is doing some of the most exciting work in community history that I've seen in quite some time. Initiated by oral historian and radio producer Joey Plaster, and activist minister Rev. Megan Rohrer, the project "resuscitates the history of the 1960s queer youth organization Vanguard and explores the ways in which its history is embodied in the present," according to the new project magazine. Programs in oral history, youth development, and other areas may have a lot to learn from the model of "Vanguard Revisited." Besides, the project's magazine, blog, audio program, and walking tours are just plain fun, vital, and provocative.

Let's step into the way-back machine for a moment. As far back as the 1960s, San Francisco's Tenderloin district has been a hangout spot for runaways and street youth, many of them LGBT or queer. Queer youth had flocked to San Francisco because of its growing reputation as a haven for outcasts. And the Tenderloin district was where many of them would gather; not coincidentally, it was also home to the "Meat Rack" area for young sex workers, the offices of the early "homophile" organization the Mattachine Society, an urban ministry in Glide Church, led by the Rev. Cecil Williams, and more. It was here in the Tenderloin in 1966 that queer street youth formed "Vanguard," a group for fun, socializing, and mutual support. They held street protests, put on weekly dances, and produced a magazine that covered sex, drugs, theology, loneliness. A 1966 statement protested police harassment, economic exploitation by adults, and drug problems to which adults seemed willfully blind. A hostile letter to the magazine (with the oddly affectionate salutation of "Darlings") said that the writer had "bought your filthy magazine from a street seller much to my dismay. I find it is nothing more than a rag for low-grade perverts, dope addicts and pacifists." At least he was in agreement with Vanguard youth. An underground 'zine that same year, 1966, ran a story headlined "Young Rejects Form Own Organization." The kids were doin' it for themselves!

Until fairly recently, this group -- which disbanded in name within a year or two -- was just a memory for surviving members to recount, and some faded papers in the archives of the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco. But that organization's oral history program coordinator, Joey Plaster, learned of the group, and saw a special resonance with today's youth. He joined forces with local minister Megan Rohrer to put the past in conversation with the present.

It would be a perfectly nifty little project to, say, republish one of the old "Vanguard" magazines. But what distinguishes "Vanguard Revisited" is that the history duo teamed up Larkin Street Youth Services and other local organizations to assemble a group of today's queer youth, who then submitted their own stories, poetry, and art in response to the contents of the original magazine. In "Vanguard Revisted" magazine, content from the 1960s "Vanguard" is paired with writings and art from today, often on similar themes. There's also a project blog, a series of oral histories, walking tours that feature clips of oral histories from original Vanguard members, and an upcoming tour to other cities. 

Instead of simply delivering history to queer youth, "Vanguard Revisited" actually enlists today's queer youth to quite literally make history -- to document history, and become a part of it. Youth draw a historical (or, in a sense, genealogical) line from themselves to homeless youth of the 1960s and before, perhaps even to the outcasts in the Bible. And in time, today's queer youth may become the ancestor's of tomorrow's fighters, writers, poets, and preachers.

Intrigued? Go visit the project website, where you can listen to an audio documentary with clips from oral history interviews of original "Vanguard" members, and download the "Vanguard Revisited" magazine. Also be sure to check out the project blog, with video clips of Tenderloin walking tours, and more

Saturday, March 5, 2011


Here's what I thought was an interesting and unusual study of narrative. The research and innovation arm of the Department of Defense is examining "the role stories play in a security context." Established in 1958, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has as its mission "to prevent strategic surprise from negatively impacting U.S. national security and create strategic surprise for U.S. adversaries by maintaining the technological superiority of the U.S. military." Here, technological superiority has to do not only with weapons systems, but with the scientific understanding of narrative. 

Just last week, DARPA had a one-day workshop called "Stories, Neuroscience and Experimental Technologies (STORyNET): Analysis and Decomposition of Narratives in Security Contexts." In the workshop announcement, DARPA says, "Stories exert a powerful influence on human thoughts and behavior. They consolidate memory, shape emotions, cue heuristics and biases in judgment, influence in-group/out-group distinctions, and may affect the fundamental contents of personal identity. It comes as no surprise that these influences make stories highly relevant to vexing security challenges such as radicalization, violent social mobilization, insurgency and terrorism, and conflict prevention and resolution. Therefore, understanding the role stories play in a security context is a matter of great import and some urgency."

The workshop had three goals. First, to survey "narrative theories" on what a story is, what its moving parts are, and what makes a story a story rather than something else. Second, "to understand the role of narrative in security context," by asking such questions as what role stories play in political violence, how they serve political radicalization, and what role they play in the actions of bystanders to political violence. Finally, the workshop sought to "survey the state of the art in narrative analysis and decomposition tools"; that is, to examine what approaches and tools can be used for "the scientific study of the psychological and neurobiological impact of stories on people."

On this blog, I've looked at many organizations that use stories to support Alzheimer's patients, human rights organizing, community-building, and other efforts. Many of them would agree with DARPA about the "powerful influence" that stories exert. One of the features that distinguishes DARPA's work -- aside from its aims -- is its scientific approach to the study of narrative. So much of what we know about stories in the public realm is either self-evident (we know from our own experience how much we think and act in terms of stories), or anecdotal (as when someone talks about how a certain book or film changed their life, or the the relief and gratitude they felt upon sharing their story in therapy or during an oral history interview). But by seeking to deconstruct and quantify stories and their impact, DARPA is taking what, to me anyway, is a uniquely rigorous approach -- one that will be of use to the Department of Defense in "security contexts," as well as to storytellers in more ordinary situations like filmmaking or walking tours. I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, March 3, 2011



The video above is a product of the Oral History Research Office (OHRO) at Columbia University, where I work. Check out OHRO's website and blog.

The video features Clare Oh, a graduate of Columbia's Oral History Master of Arts (OHMA) program. In the video, I speak with Clare about her thesis work, which consisted of oral history interviews with people with depression and bipolar disorder. Here, Clare talks about the inspiration for her project, the interview process, and what interviewees had to say about losing -- and re-taking control of -- the "authorship" of their own life stories.