Video: Community rallies to give Phoenixville festival new life

     A woman dances in front of a giant wooden bird on fire at the annual Phoenixville Firebird Festival.  This year, vandals ignited the sculpture the night before the festival, but the community came together to build another bird. (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)

    A woman dances in front of a giant wooden bird on fire at the annual Phoenixville Firebird Festival. This year, vandals ignited the sculpture the night before the festival, but the community came together to build another bird. (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)

    To residents of Phoenixville the bird and festival mean more than just a winter bonfire. Inspired by the myth of the Phoenix it symbolizes the rebirth of the former steel town.

    Every year, volunteers from Phoenixville toil away for months to build a giant wooden bird, only to then light it on fire at the annual Firebird Festival. This year, vandals beat the borough to the blaze, setting the bird on fire the night before the festival.

    Word of the burning quickly spread through social media and by morning hundreds of residents brought wooden pallets to Friendship Field and offered a hand to help build a new bird.

    To residents of Phoenixville, the bird and festival mean more than just a winter bonfire. Inspired by the myth of the Phoenix, it symbolizes the rebirth of the former Pennsylvania steel town.

    Phoenxiville rising

    The festival began 11 years ago, when a group of artists organized to celebrate the revitalization of Phoenixville’s downtown.

    “About 15 years ago, if you came downtown in this three-block business district there was probably a 20 percent occupancy rate. There were very few stores left from the 50’s when it was bustling,” said Mary Foote, executive director of the Colonial Theater. “Like many Pennsylvania towns, steel left and the downtown struggled.”

    At the heart of the three-block strip on Bridge Street is the Colonial Theater, famous for a cameo appearance in the 1958 movie “The Blob” starring Steve McQueen.

    After decades of decline, the theater reopened in 1999. Slowly, a few restaurants started to open up nearby so people could enjoy a dinner and a movie. The other arts organizations followed, explained Foote.

    “We’re now probably at 80 percent occupancy rate. So, we’ve really turned that around.”

    Not everyone is convinced that the borough has fully recovered.

    Dennis Coleman, a deacon at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, grew up three miles from Phoenixville. He remembers shopping for shoes as a boy in downtown Phoenixville and said it’s terrific to see Bridge Street packed again on Friday nights.

    But he worries about the residents living just across the bridge on the north side of town.

    “The last strip along the main drag is being rebuilt with shops and homes, but I can walk you three minutes from there and show you where folks live along the river in the summertime, where folks live under the bridge,” said Coleman.  “I like the idea that Phoenixville celebrates again that it is rising from the ashes, I just think we need to be careful that we don’t forget who hasn’t risen up yet.”

    From the ashes forms a new bird

    For Firebird organizer, Henrik Stubbe Teglbjaerg, the festival is about coming together as a community to create something and then to let it go.

    “This whole project requires a lot of people to volunteer and in my mind that is where the real festival is — where we all get together to create something that is bigger than ourselves.”

    Teglbjaerg said he was shocked to wake up in the early morning hours the day of the festival to find vandals had ignited the 30 foot wooden bird, and it burned to ashes. But he was also surprised at how quickly volunteers rallied together to build a new bird.

    “I got to learn my own lesson of really not holding on to my pretty bird,” said Teglbjaerg. “At first I thought, ‘What do I do?’ But it all turned around and became a really, really good thing — much more than I expected.”

     

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