With Easter today and Atlanta in the news, I was thinking of American cities that claim to have risen from the dead. The phoenix has been the symbol for Atlanta for over a century:
Like the Phoenix, Atlanta had risen from its own ashes following its destruction in 1864. Many times during the city’s history, Atlanta has redefined and reinvented itself, rising again as the city slogan, Resurgens, suggests. The “Atlanta Spirit” is another oft-referenced slogan describing an entrepreneurial and ambitious attitude that has shaped the city’s historical identity.
After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, boosters and others were eager to rebuild:
On October 11, 1871, three days after the fire started that devastated the city, Bross’s Tribune proclaimed, “CHEER UP. In the midst of a calamity without parallel in the world’s history, looking upon the ashes of thirty years’ accumulations, the people of this once beautiful city have resolved that CHICAGO SHALL RISE AGAIN.”
Bross, who was an avid promoter of the city, predicted that Chicago would be rebuilt in five years and would reach a population of 1 million by the turn of the century, as Donald Miller reports in City of the Century.
There is an accepted narrative that the fire created a blank slate upon which Chicago was quickly rebuilt. That blank slate allowed it to become a dynamic city of innovative architecture with a fresh skyline dotted with a brand-new building called the skyscraper.
“The great legend of Chicago is that it’s a ‘phoenix city’ – it almost instantly rebuilt itself bigger and better from the ashes. And to a certain and significant extent, that’s true,” said Carl Smith, professor emeritus of English at Northwestern University and author of Chicago’s Great Fire: The Destruction and Resurrection of an Iconic American City.
And the city of Phoenix draws on the presence of people hundreds of years before:
Those former residents were industrious, enterprising and imaginative. They built an irrigation system, consisting mostly of some 135 miles of canals, and the land became fertile. The ultimate fate of this ancient society, however, is a mystery. The accepted belief is that it was destroyed by a prolonged drought. Roving Indians, observing the Pueblo Grande ruins and the vast canal system these people left behind, gave them the name “Ho Ho Kam” — the people who have gone…
By 1868, a small colony had formed approximately four miles east of the present city. Swilling’s Mill became the new name of the area. It was then changed to Helling Mill, after which it became Mill City, and years later, East Phoenix. Swilling, having been a confederate soldier, wanted to name the new settlement Stonewall after Stonewall Jackson. Others suggested the name Salina, but neither name suited the inhabitants. It was Darrell Duppa who suggested the name Phoenix, inasmuch as the new town would spring from the ruins of a former civilization. That is the accepted derivation of our name.
Many cities have faced crises, disasters, or unusual starts. Local histories and narratives can also emphasize positive moments (and downplay negative moments). The rising from the ashes, overcoming great obstacles, coming back to life, these are all powerful narratives for big cities. They imply success, progress, and hopefully growth.
What these narratives mean now may be harder to ascertain. What does the aftermath of the Chicago Fire mean for Chicago today? Is Phoenix still rebuilding a great civilization? More than 150 years after the Civil War, is Atlanta continuing to reinvent itself? A city rising from the dead once is impressive but it may be harder to pull off over decades of change.