The city, of course, rose from this disaster. But there is a thin line between celebrating and memorializing. One hundred and fifty years is a very long time, time enough, I suppose, for the fire to be viewed dispassionately, without alarm or pain or tears. But we are almost daily reminded that fires are ferocious and deadly, a realization that comes sweeping at us on television as Western portions of our country burn and burn and burn.
Yes, 150 years is a long time and we have grown so comfortable with — even proud of — our Great Fire legends that we don’t want them revised, even if such revision proves more historically accurate. The fire is among our most cherished, because it comes wrapped with enough historical substance to have withstood time’s test.
Perhaps turning attention to rebuilding was necessary to help stop agonizing over the tragedy. Perhaps this is an instance where American boosterism, promoting the growth and status of one’s community, ran and continues to run amok. Perhaps this is just the dominant narrative that we know now; of course the third largest city in the United States and an important global city came back from a fire.
The Chicago Fire was horrific:
The fire ran and it grew, swept by a strong wind from the southwest, eating its ravenous way north and toward downtown and beyond. People ran to the lake for shelter as the city became a vast ocean of flame. After that horrible night and the equally terrifying and destructive day and night that followed, the fire finally burned itself out. The city awoke Tuesday to find more than 18,000 buildings destroyed, much of the city leveled, 90,000 people homeless and 300-some people dead.
I am having a hard time thinking of a more recent urban tragedy that has followed a similar trajectory where despair turned to celebration of rebuilding and activity. Time might help but urban disasters or crises can strike quite a blow and the effects can linger a long time.