Friday, August 09, 2019

Walking into History

Last week I went down to the City -- the way we folks who live up here in Albany describe taking the train or driving south to NYC. I explain this because it always sounds a bit like coming down from the mountains to visit civilization. We are civilized (if not as sophisticated) here in Albany. But in  Albany, I am aware of history. In the City, I walk into and am sometimes startled by history.

The trip to the City last week was to do research. The summer is winding down fast. I have several writing projects underway and I'm trying to get as much done as I can before school begins at the end of the month. So I got on a train -- we have multiple trains between the City and points north on any given day. The ride down to the City passes alongside the Hudson River.

I went down planning to accomplish three research tasks. I accomplished only one. For my 1939 historical thriller, I needed to go to Harlem to tour the famed Apollo Theater. Unfortunately, there were no tours that day. I wanted to go out to Queens to visit the Flushing Meadows Corona Park, the site of the 1939 and 1964 World Fairs. But I didn't have enough time to do that and take the first tour on my list -- Greenwich Village. I had been to Greenwich Village before, but only passing through. This time I wanted to have someone who was an expert of the geography of the neighborhood walk me through it.

After some research, I found a tour company that looked promising. That day, being overly ambitious, I set out to walk from my hotel located across from Bryant Park. The day was hot and humid and I made the mistake of stopping to do a little shopping along the way. I finally flagged down a taxi to take me the rest of the way. That turned out well because I arrived early, had time to get a cold drink at the Starbucks across the street, and to chat a little with our tour guide. He was an actor, who led tours as his day job. We were a small group of eight or nine, from the United States, Australia, and, I think, Norway.

As we walked, our tour guide told us the history of the Village. I had asked about Cafe Society, the club that was known as "the wrong place for the Right people." The club where Billie Holiday performed "Strange Fruit" (a song about lynching in the South written by a Jewish high school teacher) that summer in 1939. The club that brought together an interracial group of "radicals" and "progressives" -- and, significant for my historical thriller, attracted the attention of J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). In my thriller, the focus is not on Cafe Society, but it is the place where several of my characters encounter each other as they begin the journey that will lead them to Atlanta in December 1939.

Greenwich Village is famous for the many artists and writers who lived there at one point or another, Edgar Allan Poe among them. The Stonewall Riots (rebellion) was an important event in the history of gay (LGBTQ) activism and civil rights. I made notes to myself to talk about all of that when I teach my grad course on cities this semester.

But it was the stop at Washington Park that brought me up short. Stanford White, the architect who designed Madison Square Garden and was shot there by millionaire Harry Thaw, also designed the Washington Park Arch. It features two statues of George Washington, one in war, one in peace. I had been thinking about Stanford White and George Washington and their overlap. I was about to take my camera out, when our tour guide pointed to a building across the street -- and sent a chill down my spine. On this lovely summer afternoon, we were looking at an unassuming brick building. A ten-story building that blended in with the others on that street but that is a National Historic Landmark. Like much of the other property in the neighborhood, the building is owned by New York University.  As our tour guide told us, that building was the home of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. In March 1911, a fire broke out there. The young immigrant women working at their sewing machines on the tenth floor of the building had no escape. A door was locked; the fire department ladders could not reach them. Many jumped to their deaths to escape the flames. I had seen the photos and watched documentaries. I had never thought about what that building would look like today. . .that there would be no outward sign of what had happened there.

That gave me pause. I'm still thinking about it. And about how the residents of Greenwich Village in 1939 might have felt about an event that would have been within the historical memory of many of them. It has nothing to do with my plot, but it is relevant to the world in which my characters live.


Anna said...

I read the novel East River by Sholem Asch when I was barely 13, and I was riveted by the account of the Triangle fire (about the only part of the book I still remember). Only much later did I learn that the fire was not fiction but a real event. It's good to know that the building is now a protected landmark. To stand in its presence, as you just did, must have been a profound moment.

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

Hi Anna,

Yes, it was. I think the fact that it looked just like any other building in a neighborhood of brick buildings was what surprised me. That and the fact that NYU has administrative offices in the building. I imagine that even after all this time there must be some echo of the tragedy.

Charlotte Hinger said...

Accounts of the Triangle shirt factory fire sends chills up my spine.