Special Report

Great Cities That Came Back After Being Nearly Destroyed

Source: US Army Signal Corps / Wikimedia Commons

Tokyo, Japan
> Tragedy: World War II
> When it happened: 1944-1945
> Population at the time: 6.4 million

Tokyo had gradually rebounded from the catastrophic Great Kanto Earthquake that destroyed the city and other Japanese cities in 1923. That progress would be wiped out by U.S. air raids during WWII. On March 9, 1945, U.S. warplanes dropped 2,000 tons of incendiary bombs on Japan’s largest city over a period of two days, unleashing the worst firestorm in history that killed between 80,000 and 130,000 Japanese civilians.

After the war, Japan built a more modern city, in contrast to the mostly wooden structures that were a feature of the capital. A pro-growth coalition government supported a building surge that included office and residential buildings, superhighways leading to Haneda International Airport, new subway lines, and a bullet train between Tokyo and Osaka. Tokyo has become one of the preeminent cities in the world in terms of economic and financial significance.

Source: Courtesy of U.S. National Archives and Records Administration / Wikimedia Commons

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
> Tragedy: Vietnam War
> When it happened: 1968
> Population at the time: 2.5 million

Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) was the capital of South Vietnam before the nation was reunited in 1975, when the city fell to communist forces that ended the Vietnam War. Saigon was attacked by Viet Cong troops allied with North Vietnam during the Tet Offensive in January 1968, and heavy fighting also occurred in the Cholon section of the city that was home to ethnic Chinese. The U.S. embassy was also attacked.

With the war becoming a distant memory, tourists are flocking to Saigon to drink coffee — Vietnam is the world’s second-biggest producer of coffee after Brazil — and enjoy its signature noodle soup, pho.

Source: Roland Neveu / Contributor / Getty Images

Beirut, Lebanon
> Tragedy: Civil war, Israeli invasion
> When it happened: 1975-2000
> Population at the time: 1.5 million

Beirut had been called the “Paris of the Middle East,” owing to its sophistication and Lebanon’s legacy as a French colony. But both the Lebanese Civil War that began in 1975 and invasion of Lebanon by Israel in 1982 turned the city on the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea into a killing field.

The civil war ended in 1990, and Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000. Beirut has rebounded, attracting foreign investment, and its downtown boasts modern architecture and affluent residences. But among the costs of reconstruction have been the tearing down of historic buildings. There are also some concerns that the city lacks public services and that the government has not done enough to rebuild infrastructure. Beirut’s resilience is being put to the test following a massive blast in the port section of the city that killed 200 people.

Source: 松岡明芳 / Wikimedia Commons

Kobe, Japan
> Tragedy: Earthquake
> When it happened: 1995
> Population at the time: 1.5 million

In 1995, Kobe was hit by one of the strongest and deadliest earthquakes in the history of Japan, a country prone to earthquakes because it lies across three tectonic plates. The death toll is estimated to have been close to 6,400. Another 300,000 people, or a fifth of the population at the time, were left homeless. More than 240,000 houses were damaged or destroyed.

Today, Kobe has been completely rebuilt and has become a tourist attraction year-round due to its proximity to both the ocean and a mountain range. It’s famous for its Kobe beef, too. Along with the nearby cities of Osaka and Kyoto, Kobe is part of Japan’s second largest urban and industrial area.

Source: Getty Images / Staff / Getty Images News

New York City, New York
> Tragedy: Terrorism, epidemics, fiscal crisis
> When it happened: 2001
> Population at the time: 8 million

There is much talk about the exodus from New York City due to the coronavirus pandemic. As more residents work remotely, they leave the densely-populated city for homes with more space and lower cost of living. The city has been through such a shift before — after the 9/11 terrorist attack, the worst on American soil. Many people then moved to New Jersey. But after a few months, the pace of departures slowed, eventually reversing.

New York has overcome other setbacks. The cholera epidemic in 1832 killed 3,515 out of a population of 250,000 (today’s equivalent would be more than 100,000). The HIV/AIDS epidemic in the ’80s killed more than 100,000 residents. The financial crisis of the 1970s, when the city was on the verge of bankruptcy, led to thousands of layoffs, a wage freeze, a subway price hike, and charging tuition at what was a free City University.