Up near the northwest corner of Alabama is a four-square-mile town called Phil Campbell. There is also a New York-based writer named Phil Campbell. Together, they’ve been able to create a loose international community of Phil Campbells that share a single bond: their name.
The Alabama Phil Campbell got its name from an English railroad engineer. As the story goes, that Phil Campbell was building rail lines through Alabama in the 1880s when a local businessman told him that if he would build a depot in the area where the town still stands, he would name it after him. Campbell obliged, and the businessman kept his word, making it one of only a handful of towns in the U.S. to go by a full person’s name. Campbell himself never ended up living in the place that still bears his name.
As of 2010, the town has a population of just over 1,100 souls.
Now meet Phil Campbell, a writer currently living in Queens. “I’m Brooklyn Phil, and I’m going to be Brooklyn Phil. Some of [the other Phils] will say Queens just to mess with me, because they think Queens is funny,” says Brooklyn Phil (which is how we will refer to him going forward, for reasons that will soon become obvious).
Brooklyn Phil first discovered the town of Phil Campbell when he was in college back in 1993. “I was drinking and dateless on a Saturday night with my college roommates, and there was a random moment where we found Hee Haw,” says Brooklyn Phil. “We really just wanted to see somebody pop out of that corn field. Instead, there was a moment where they used to give a shout out to a small town in Middle America, and they said “HOWDY!” to the folks of Phil Campbell, Alabama.”
Brooklyn Phil and his roommates quickly went to their road atlas, and sure enough, they learned that Phil Campbell, Alabama, was a real place. “It was just such a seductive idea. A town having your name,” he says.
Brooklyn Phil travelled to Phil Campbell for the first time that next summer, in 1994. “I did what every other Phil Campbell has done in that town, which is take a lot of photos. Next to the police cars; a couple of water towers have the name. Anywhere there’s a name. I also just wandered around the town randomly talking to people,” he says. During that first trip, he also discovered that the county clerk had kept a yellow file folder of business cards and news clippings about all the Phil Campbells who had come to the town previously. This gave him the idea to put together the first ever Phil Campbell Convention.
Returning home from his visit, Brooklyn Phil looked up all of the Phil Campbells he could find with registered phone numbers (off of a CD-ROM directory! The ‘90s!). Identifying about 330 Phil Campbells across the nation, he began blindly sending out letters to each one. He included a copy of an article about the town that he had written for his college newspaper, and some information about his proposed meet-up. “People wrote back. People left voice mails. Enough people responded from such a diverse number of places, I just thought, ‘I have to do this.’” he says.
The first Phil Campbell Convention took place in June of 1995. In addition to Brooklyn Phil, 22 other Phils, and even a Phyllis, converged on Phil Campbell for the weekend to hang out and commiserate over their shared Phil Campbell-ness. Phil Campbells came from Idaho, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and other parts of the country, identifying each other by their hometowns. According to Brooklyn Phil, they ranged in personality from beer-downing good ol’ boys to mysterious recluses (one tragic Phil, who had lost his wife and hardly left his room the whole weekend, was a particular focus of discussion among the others). They drank, and grilled, and shared their stories. “All these themes of community, and ‘what is community?’ Those were all really strong in the first Phil Campbell convention in ‘95,” says Brooklyn Phil.
All the while, the mayor of Phil Campbell did everything he could to keep the visiting Phils happy, thinking of the modest convention as a possible boon to the local economy. A few national press outlets picked up the story, and the mayor even honored Brooklyn Phil for putting the whole thing together. “The mayor at the time gave me an honorary citizen certificate. I was hoping for a key to the city,” says Brooklyn Phil.
At the end of the weekend, the Phils scattered back to their home states. Brooklyn Phil wrote an in-depth article about the experience, which was published in the now-defunct San Francisco magazine Might, and began to move on with his life.
The town of Phil Campbell, or at least the mayor, wanted to keep the tradition going and tried to organize another Phil Campbell convention the next year, but only eight Phils showed up. As Brooklyn Phil tells it, the rest of the town began to get pretty salty about all of the attention the out-of-town Phils were receiving from the mayor. After a couple of years, the idea of the Phil Campbell Convention was replaced with an annual Hoedown celebration that focused more on the town itself and its people. “It didn’t occur to me when I was that young that I would be able to create an event that would involve a whole town. Had I been better prepared, that totally could have been a festival from the beginning. Bringing Phils and the residents together,” says Brooklyn Phil.
Both the town of Phil Campbell and Brooklyn Phil moved on. The Hoedown continued to be celebrated each year, while Brooklyn Phil pursued his career in journalism, eventually taking a detour into politics (which resulted in a book and a movie), and landing him in Brooklyn in 2004.
But the Phil Campbell siren song came to Brooklyn Phil again in 2010 after he stumbled on the town’s Wikipedia page, which included a handful of somewhat incorrect references to the original convention. It occurred to him that in the new world of social media, he could finally do the convention again, the way he’d always wanted to do it, with Phil Campbells from all over the world. Finding Phil Campbells from Australia to Chile, he began sending out messages across Facebook. His sister suggested that he set a goal of connecting with every single Phil Campbell in the world, which garnered his campaign attention from news outlets including the BBC and The Wall Street Journal. It was during this effort that he finally earned his nickname, “Brooklyn Phil.”
Brooklyn Phil reconnected with the town management, and they planned a convention to take place as part of the annual Hoedown in June of 2011, which would also mark the 100th anniversary of the town’s incorporation. The stars seemed to be aligning for a bigger, more global convention than before, which would also pay respect to the town. Then, on April 27, 2011, the town of Phil Campbell was hit by a massive EF-5 tornado.
Whole swaths of the town were obliterated, and 27 people were killed in the storm. Initially the Hoedown was called off while the town focused on its recovery, but then one of the Phils who’d been planning on heading to Alabama for the Hoedown suggested to Brooklyn Phil that the Phils turn the convention into a relief effort. Literally, “Phil Campbells Helping Phil Campbell.”
Brooklyn Phil was able to convince the town to reinstate the Hoedown, and he got on the phone with more media outlets, hoping to increase interest in fundraising to support rebuilding efforts.
On a June weekend, 20 people named Phil Campbell came to Phil Campbell, Alabama, this time to help rebuild. A handful of Phils who’d attended the 1995 convention returned to help out, including a man from Wisconsin called Big Phil, who spent the days breaking down debris like he was born to it. There were a handful of Phils from Australia, one from Scotland, another from England. Together they worked at cleaning up and clearing the demolished pavilion and swimming pool where the first convention had taken place, before taking part in a small parade and town festival.
While their efforts had a good hook, the Phils were far from the only groups who came to help Phil Campbell. “It’s hard to take too much credit for it. There was a group of Mennonites who drove down from Pennsylvania right after the tornado hit, and they just started building houses. There are lots of stories of people stepping up to help other people,” says Brooklyn Phil.
By the end of their efforts, the Phils had managed to attract international media attention and raise enough money to fund a Habitat for Humanity house. “We’d raised something like $42,000, which wasn’t bad for six weeks from 20 random guys,” says Brooklyn Phil. “We’re not coming from big money or anything, we’re just Phil Campbells.”
After that weekend in 2011, the Phils once again scattered back to their respective homes, but a great many of them now continue to stay in touch. If a Phil Campbell has an album coming out, the rest of the Phil Campbells in the community will do what they can to support it; if a Phil Campbell is passing through another Phil Campbell’s city, they will often try and meet up. And in at least one case, if a Phil Campbell is having medical trouble, others will try and raise money. All because they share a name.
A documentary about the relief efforts, I’m With Phil, was released in 2014, playing multiple times on Alabama PBS stations, and making Brooklyn Phil somewhat of a local celebrity in the state. But he’s still an outsider. “I think I’m sort of seen as the weird uncle from New York, because I’ve a very strong liberal political bias,” he says. “I post a lot of stuff and I’m not stopping posting stuff on Facebook, and a few people have stepped up to argue with me. It is a strange sort of relationship, because I’m not the usual sort of person they normally get to know.”
Brooklyn Phil and other interested Phil Campbells now plan to reconvene in Phil Campbell every five years, having just gone there again in 2016 to clear a walking path. The town no longer keeps a file of clippings and cards, but they still honor the Phils who pass through. Around 2014, a wooden sign (built by Birmingham Phil, from nearby Birmingham, Alabama) was installed that features directional arrows to all of the far-flung places visiting Phil Campbells have hailed from.
At the next scheduled Hoedown, in 2021, the Phils plan on adding a new arrow for Webster, New York. “We’re adding one for a Phil Campbell who passed away [around] 20 years ago. But his sister and his wife made the trip to Phil Campbell, Alabama, because that was on his bucket list at some point in his life, but he never made it out,” says Brooklyn Phil. In the meantime, the new arrow is being passed around the Phil Campbell community, many taking pictures with it in their hometowns, before it gets installed in Phil Campbell. Ultimately, the Phil Campbell community remains drawn to Phil Campbell, Alabama, and to one another.