Place Identity

This weekend I led the Chicago Fire tour for the Chicago Historical Society as I have for the last four or five years. We follow the 4-mile long path of the fire, hearing eyewitness accounts and describing how it spread and what it destroyed.

The Fire is a central event to the civic identity of Chicago – it is one of the four stars on the city’s flag. When my Michelin editors came here a dozen years ago to begin work on the first Green Guide to Chicago, they commented on how Chicago people talked about the Fire as if it happened yesterday. That means the historic event has a central piece of the city’s identity.

This happens everywhere. Go to Ireland and the 1690 Battle of the Boyne was yesterday. Go to Atlanta and Sherman’s march ended last week. Parts of Paris are forever 1890 or 1850 and the 1770s trail through the streets of Boston. The Thais are still celebrating 200-year old victories over Burma and the Dai Viet recall a millennia-gone general who began a millennia of resistance against the Chinese.

Place identity is forged in these events – or years after them – but the process usually involves the debasing and freebasing of the actual history into that potent and toxic distillate known as heritage. Heritage is history reworked to support a particular political (and/or religious) agenda.

Destructive historic events – wars and disasters – are especially useful as instruments of heritage. That’s because heritage carries the instrumentality forward, allowing later and unrelated depredations to be blamed on the same identity-forging event. Preservationists from Atlanta- seeing Chicago – would always tell me they couldn’t preserve anything because of Sherman’s destruction. Horsefeathers. Sherman burned Atlanta 6 and 1/2 years before Chicago burned to the ground. How many 1950s urban renewal projects can be blamed on an 1860s general? There are towns and bridges and plantations that the Confederates destroyed (to prevent Sherman from getting them) that are now blamed on Sherman in official historical markers installed two generations later.

Similar things happen worldwide. Anything destroyed in Ireland was destroyed by Cromwell, the most rapacious of the Anglo invaders. It’s even true here. Everyone knows the Water Tower was the only building that survived the great fire. Wrong. On our Chicago Fire tour I note that a large 5-story brick building survived the Fire in the Loop – Lind’s Block near the river, and even Mrs. O’Leary’s house (the fire burned north from her barn, sparing the house) survived into the 1960s, only to be razed during the manic progress frenzy of urban renewal. Urban renewal also took aim at the Water Tower itself in 1948.

Marseilles (France) wiped out most of its old quarter after the Second World War, but thanks to a plaque put up to commemorate the destruction of a couple dozen buildings by the Nazis in 1943, we can blame the whole thing on the bad guys, even if their efforts paled in comparison to 1950s French city planners.

Identity is a crutch and heritage is a part of all identity – whether communal or personal. But heritage is always a reduction – a simplification – of history. Real history is too messy and contradictory for a project that needs as much reassurance as identity.

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