The first Firebird Festival lit up the sky 12 years ago, a celebration in homage to the rebirth of one Pennsylvania town named Phoenixville.
A former steel hub, Phoenixville rose to prominence in mid-19th century. When the factory began its decline–and eventually closed in 1986–the town, too, fell into disrepair.
Slowly, Phoenixville has begun its resurrection and Henrik Stubbe Teglbjaerg, who created the Firebird Festival, was one of the citizens most responsible for its comeback.
An immigrant to the United States, Teglbjaerg was drawn to the city because it had one of the few remaining walkable downtowns in suburban Philadelphia.
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It would be easy to peg Teglbjaerg simply as a free spirit: he rides his bike to meetings, is often seen around town barefoot, and does not use a smart phone. But Teglbjaerg defies labels, and does not espouse a specific philosophy. He values simplicity, so he lives without gadgets. He values diversity, so he spearheads a festival that brings people from all walks of life together. He values spiritual nourishment, so has arranged his life to be lived outdoors. And, he organizes one of the region’s largest and most eclectic community celebrations, the Firebird Festival.
The festival kicks off with a parade of performers, musicians, belly dancers, and drummers. All the events are meant to show off the city’s artistic vibe: Artists planned the first Firebird Festival to “foster a collaboration of local artistic and creative talent, and to enhance the cultural life of Phoenixville.”
The day culminates at, the aptly named, Friendship Field where a magnificent three-story bird is burned to the ground.
Inside the Phoenix are clay birds created in the weeks preceding at a local art studio. These “peace birds” are fired in the kiln that is the burning bird, and are dug out of the ashes the next day as talisman-souvenirs.
For organizer Teglbjaerg, his community’s engagement is the crux and reason for the festival. The wooden bird itself has little intrinsic value, but those connections fuel his annual passion.
A Premature Torching
This year’s festival is the most significant yet. In 2014, the event almost met an untimely death when the bird was set ablaze by arsonists on the night before the festival.
Teglbjaerg got the call early on a cold, rainy, gray morning in December. The fire chief’s voice cracked with emotion as he broke the news that the bird was gone. As he rushed to the site, Teglbjaerg’s concern was keeping the fire going long enough to bake the community’s peace birds already inside the Phoenix.
For the past decade he’s talked about the festival as a symbol of connection. And when the unthinkable happened, Teglbjaerg’s philosophy and purpose were tested.
Teglbjaerg immediately put a call out on social media. As the festival’s vision keeper, he inspired neighbors to hold their anger and vengeance at bay. They poured in with pallets, scrap wood, and momentum to rebuild their symbol, literally, from the ashes. A local nursery showed up with wood chips to absorb the mud and ash on the fields, and Teglbjaerg nimbly orchestrated an impromptu rebuilding of a new Phoenix in just a few hours. The arson ignited the most inspiring day of the festival’s history, and the new bird symbolized a community’s love.
Henrik remembers that cold day: “I had dozens of performers, vendors, community art ready to go. In the pouring rain, people kept coming. It’s odd to say, but it’s actually a gift. Here, the whole community was part of creating. That’s the idea—that we are all participating. I want to keep that alive. In our culture, we hold on to so much. When we burn it down, we are left with this void. But you are open to all these new possibilities. It’s wonderful to create this beautiful thing and then just let go of it.”
An Ongoing Renewal
Processing tragedy is an invitation to grow. The community’s commitment to the spirit of the Phoenix, which brings them together on a muddy field– this year on December 5, has enabled the town to feel a part of something greater than themselves. The drumbeat of creative joy that the festival provides, is ushering Phoenixville into a new era.