The Hard Work of Remembering

My son and I write Joseph Wilson’s name on the cobblestone sidwalk beside the Chrystie St. Playground in Chinatown.

This morning, my family and I walked over the Manhattan bridge to the Lower East Side, to write two names on the sidewalk in chalk: Joseph Wilson and Fannie Lansner. Both twenty-two when they died, both workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory, both Russian Immigrants, both living in the same low-rent neighbourhood near the foot of The Bowery. Both killed in a fire 110 years ago today.

The address where Joseph Wilson lived — 84 Christie — is now a park, so we wrote his name beside the playground. It’s a place where lots of people gather, so I think lots of people will read what we wrote. Wilson was a foreman at the Triangle Factory; he actually escaped the fire but returned to retrieve a locket that his fiancee had given him. She would later identify his body because of the locket.

Joseph Wilson’s Certificate of Death

Joseph & Fannie were neighbours. She lived at 78 Forsyth. When we walked across the park to write Fannie’s name, we saw that it had already been done! Pilot wanted to add a ❤️ around the name, so he did. Fannie Lansner’s story is well known. She was a foreman as well, but she didn’t escape. She guided many of her workers– mostly young girls– to safety via the only small elevator in the building, but died in her efforts. She was a hero.

Fannie’s story in The Evening Telegram on March 27th, 1911
Chalk on the steps of Fannie’s house at 78 Forsyth

Today we were part of a small group of volunteers who wrote the names of each of the 146 victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in front of the places where they lived. Some people wrote names on their own blocks, some in front of their own houses. Ruth Sergel, who organizes this memorial every year, calls it ”a demonstration of the power of collective action.”

I’ve thought a lot over the last decade about names and remembrance. In 2009, I wrote a pair of algorithms to place the nearly 3,000 names on the 9/11 memorial, based on the real-life connections between the people who died.

That work started with a hard drive, delivered to my basement apartment with a password-encrypted Microsoft Exchange database. It was not, in any real sense, big data. Two tables, one some three thousand rows long and the other just under half that. On the first day, at random, I copy-pasted one of the names into Google. I’m not sure which name I picked; but I read about their life. About their work and their families and their softball team and the joke they’d always tell at the holiday party. It was something I’d do hundreds of times over the following months. In the day, with the frequency of a cigarette break, I’d Google the names. Joyce Carpeneto. Benjamin Clark.

The Googling was a bulwark against the impersonal code I was writing, against the graphical abstractions that I’d use in the place of the names as I worked. William Macko. Nurul H. Miah. Eventually the names became entrenched in my mind, and by the time I was working on the layout tool that the architects would use I felt close to so many of them, knew so many of their stories. Matthew Sellitto. Daniel and Joseph Shea. Mohammed Shajahan. Dianne T. Signer and her unborn child.

The first time I visited the memorial, shortly before it opened, I walked along one edge of the South pool, tracing out the names with my fingers. There they all were again. Anthony Perez, Sandra Campbell, Kaaria Mbaya, Hashmukh Parmar, Yudhvir Jain. It was too much. I excused myself from our tour and leant against the construction scaffolding, tears in my eyes. The second time I didn’t get close enough to read the names. I stood under a tree, far enough away that I couldn’t make out any detail.

As of today 545,305 people in this country have died from COVID-19. If the names were on the same bronze parapets as the 9/11 memorial, they’d stretch for forty-nine miles, very nearly twice around the perimeter of Manhattan.

How do we begin to conceive of a memorial that fits to this terrible, unrelenting figure? Who will bear the burden of this work? We can find some answers, I think, by looking at projects like Chalk: street-level remembrances created by artists and rooted in communities.

Since 2009, German artist Gunter Demnig has laid 70,000 four inch metal cubes into the streets of cities and towns across Europe and Russia. The stones, called “Stolpersteine” or “stumbling stones” each carry the name of a jewish person who was murdered in the holocaust. Kaszás Andor. Edith Klein. Max Eichholz. Demnig describes the stones as “vivid and personal.” They are also intimate, a way to spend time with only one name, a single star in a constellation of enormous loss.

Gunter Demnig holding two Stolpersteine
A Solpersteine embedded in a cobblestone street

The Chalk project and the Stolpersteine resonate, across an ocean. They both exist in the real world, not in a rarified place designated for remembrance. They both frame mourning not only as a passive thing, but as a hands-and-knees labour that stretches across centuries.

Writing Joseph Wilson’s name on sidewalk this morning, I thought about how the Chalk project’s specific power comes not through permanence but persistence. “Footsteps and rain will erase the memorial,” Sergel writes, “but in the following year others will return.”

545,305.

That number will keep growing for the rest of my life and yours. There won’t be a clear place to erect a memorial nor a day to perform a ceremony. The loss we’ve experienced has ranged too far, run too long. But remembering is necessary work.

As we walked away from our chalk memorials, I asked my son how it’d made him feel to write and draw and think of Joseph and Fannie. He thought about it for a moment.

“It makes me feel love.”

You can read more about my work on the 9/11 memorial in my book Living in Data, which will be published on May 4th by MCDxFSG.

Jer Thorp is an artist, writer & teacher. He is Innovator-in-Residence at the Library of Congress. His book Living in Data is out now from MCDxFSG.