Volume 80, Number 2 | June 9-15, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Pins, needles, and a sense of history
The walls of a Chelsea high school tell an epic tale


Whenever our city struggles through its darkest times, New Yorkers create something that provides light and joy amid the ruins.

During the Great Depression our exhausted, tireless, loving mayor repeatedly broke President Roosevelt’s heart with the troubles afflicting New York City. Fiorello LaGuardia would fly to Washington again and again to cry large Jewish-Italian tears of genuine empathy — and soon, his friend Franklin also cried (though more reservedly) as New York received more millions from the federal government to put us back to work. While Moses led us through depression’s desert to a promised land made with new bridges and parkways, writers worked together on “The WPA Guide to New York City.” Capturing in 700 pages the city in the 1930s (and written by Federal Writers Project contributors including Van Wyck Brooks, Malcolm Cowley, the poet Alfred Kreyborg, and Mark Van Doren), it remains one of the most insightful, enduring, and pleasurable books ever written about New York. 

Artists and painters, they spread out all over town — the Bronx and Brooklyn, in hospitals, libraries, post offices, even Rikers Island (where painter Anton Refregier’s penitentiary mural “Home and Family” hoped to inspire previously wayward men back to the right path). 

One artist adding beauty and inspiration throughout the city had escaped his native Germany to avoid the inevitable conflict that soon became World War I. He arrived in and quickly loved New York City, studying first at the National Academy of Design and later at the Art Students League. His lithographs of the city are romantic and evocative. There’s “Manhattan Waterfront” with the Brooklyn Bridge in the foreground and a mighty lower Manhattan skyline in the distance. His “View From My Window” has the artist himself at his desk and the Empire State Building rising majestically as background. He also did loving prints of Central Park, as well as Madison, Union, and Washington squares — but his largest and most stirring works are the two epic murals in the auditorium of the Central High School of Needle Trades (located at 225 W. 24th Street).

He’s Ernest Fiene — and in 1938, the Ladies Garment Workers Union commissioned him to depict the struggles, despair, hope, and eventual victory of the garment industry.

Entitled “History of the Needlecraft Industries,” the murals are dramatic pastel images — larger than life and complete with both historic as well as allegorical figures, powerfully rendered if by nothing else than their size and statuesque shapes. The first panel, “Victory of Light Over Darkness,” depicts haggard immigrants disembarking at Castle Garden — years before Ellis Island — stooped and overburdened beneath a money-grabbing giant. Pinned to one immigrant boy’s tattered lapel is the number 42, and that boy, Max Meyer, would later become a leader in the garment industry and founder of this very school. 

Across the mural are garment workers huddled and dejected in miserable shops, others working by gaslight at home deep into night. Banners behind them, partly obscured, proclaim workers’ rights and Union hopes. To the left blazes the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, with burnt, broken young women dead on the sidewalks below. Yet in the foreground, even amid such misery, are the figures of Lillian Ward (founder of the Henry Street Settlement) and Al Smith — who from the South Street fish markets became our assemblyman, then governor. The mural’s images are legendary to all of us. The allegorical figures of Greed and another of Enlightenment are as large as Titans. And we remain quiet beneath this aura, the events and the scale, our eyes always seeing more. 

The second panel opposite is “Harmony and Achievement” — as large and imposing as the other. But in this mural, the workers appear comfortable and content. They are well-dressed and healthy as they perform their labor, while five inserted panels reveal the five trades used in the industry and once taught in this school: the shoemakers, the furriers, milliners, the garment workers. Displayed among them, the tools of each trade. 

To the left, images of worker healthcare — doctors and nurses, x-rays and check-ups. To the right, an audience watches the scene “Sunday in the Park” from the ILGWU revue “Pins and Needles” (the 1937 Broadway hit musical about the labor unions that ran for over a thousand performances): 

“Sing me of wars and sing me of breadlines,
Tell me of front-page news.
Sing me of strikes and last minute headlines.
Dress your observation in syncopation.
Sing me a song with social significance.
There’s nothing else that will do.
It must get hot with what is what,
Or I won’t love you.” 

In the center foreground of the mural, seated at a table, is President Roosevelt — with Mayor LaGuardia seated to his left. Max Meyer, Chairman Max Meyer now, stands behind them with others, including a self-portrait of Ernest holding his pallet and this imaginary moment forever. 

When Ernest Fiene painted these concrete walls (and later married Alicia Wiencek, his young assistant on this job), women attended this school to learn the garment industry. A vocational school in the 1960s, a Regents Diploma high school now and known as the High School of Fashion Industries, the focus here is on fashion design — and I wondered a little cynically if any of these students now know anything of this epic story surrounding them. In time, some of those students entered the auditorium, high school fashion students — all of them stylish, confident, chewing gum and every one of them wearing earphones. 

“Do you students know about this?” I asked a distracted girl walking by.

“ ’cuse me,” she said removing one earphone.

“These,” I said, gesturing first to one mural, then the other, “do you know about these?”

“Of course,” she said lightly, placed the earphone back in place and moved on.” When you know your history,” she smiled at the mural while strolling down the aisle, “then you know where you’re comin’ from.”   

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