“There is a City Where Fire Burns Underground” by Kailey Tedesco and M. Perle Tahat


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M: I tell my friend who is not from the U.S., “There is a city where a fire burns underground indefinitely.”Watching the 2006 documentary The Town That Was centering the lives of Centralia’s residents from about the 1960’s neglects the history of the upheaval of indigenous people. I thought of Centralia while watching VICELAND’s Abandoned, in particular there was an episode on abandoned shopping malls (season 1, episode 1 “Ghost Mall”) where Ohio residents in their 30’s offer a tour of one of the malls. There’s a scene where one of the men is pointing to the smashed store windows and garbage littering the inside of the mall tearing up saying, “I just wish people would respect this place, you know? Like people spent time here, they loved this place.” In my mind there is this low twang saying “No, you are erasing indigenous communities and their original inhabitants here. You are asking for the respect you never gave or don’t remember or were never taught.” As with Centralia we are looking at a narrative removed from its larger history, but it’s as if the land remembers and has this sense of humor and ability to renew the space, even if it’s through purging the inhabitants.  One of the pieces I took away from the film A Ghost Story (2017) was that same way we can observe the futures and pasts of Centralia in one panorama if we decide to be critical of the discourse based on what we can learn about our shared histories. M. Ansli Dukan who works in the tradition of afrofuturism notes as a rationale for their 2016 film Invisible Universe, “In the present we dreamed of this future, in the future we dreamed of this past.” Centralia is all its past and all our futures locked up in one space and set free by fire. Centralia as representation of white settler colonialism and what we will become, our inevitability in the U.S. that’s why this space is engrossing. There’s also this ecofeminist critique that’s glaring: these miners came into this space to strip resources from the land with no regard for the future and within only a matter of one hundred years or so we see the culmination of these intentions as something that has inspired eerie tales of horror in the public imagination.

K: The woman I nannied for as a teen was the first person to tell me about Centralia. One afternoon when she was driving me home, she started talking to her kids in the backseat about how her school bus used to travel over a town of fire. As a fifteen-year-old Pennsylvania newbie, this was the coolest thing I’d ever heard. Intrigued, I asked her to tell me more, and I got the whole story.

It wasn’t until a whole decade later that I traveled to the town to see it for myself. It wasn’t at all what I expected. And you’re right, M., the whole place is just this rejection of its population. The environment retaliated & smoked out its inhabitants. There are no ghosts except for the town’s glaring inability to move forward and/or reflect, even now. I think of Pompeii — all the bodies preserved in their soot. The culture of the surrounding towns is similar. Here’s just a little bit of my day in Centralia:

 

  1. Ate at a diner in western PA. This diner, decked out in gaudy patriotism, was a welcome rest spot after passing many an all you can eat buffet advertising “seafoods & steak products.” I wore crystals & dark red lipstick and my partner wore jorts. An elderly couple in a booth did not take their eyes off of us the entire time we ate. In the back, by the restroom, a chalk drawing of Trump stared out at all of us.

 

  1. Our trip to Centralia was a spontaneous one. We were initially going to go to the Mütter Museum, but took a wrong turn (it’s kind of all the same, anyhow). I needed to change out of my dress and clogs, so we stopped at a Dollar General. I bought some shorts & some walking shoes. As we approached the check out line, the cashier spoke with another woman about how lazy millennials are & how the world is screwed because of us.

 

  1. We pass a woman mowing her lawn outside of a ranch home. This is the last residence we see before entering the winding side roads that lead to Centralia’s graffiti highway. The woman has covered the entire front of her home with an enormous “Make America Great Again” banner. This seems comical to me especially because the America this woman presumably knows best has literally been on fire since 1962.

 

  1. We enter Centralia and start to hike. We want to check out the Russian Orthodox cemetery, completely untampered with. A man in a t-shirt and jeans casually slings a rifle over his shoulder. There are families with children just in front of him. We’re told that as long as he doesn’t shoot, there’s nothing we can do. We don’t check out the cemetery.

 

  1. We finally descend to Graffiti Highway. The whole town is a slow descension. It’s trying to convince you that it’s the real hell & maybe it is. Before I can take in the wonder of vandalism negated by abandonment, a group of men on quads shout about what they wish they could to anyone with a “tight pussy” who happens to be walking by. My partner and I look to two other women walking by. We form a temporary pack. We all have the feeling it is needed.

 

What is left of Centralia is at once a Norman Rockwell painting, flipped inside out to show its implicit exploitation & destruction & prejudice, and a sacred ground — the answer to what happens to Americana when it dies.   And it is dying. That fire is spreading, literally and figuratively. It’s begging for change, but few seem to be listening.

M: When I was a teen my then boyfriend used to play video games and invite me to hang out in his friend’s attic while they played. Since I was the guest I’d always request they play Silent Hill because the story and realistic (at the time) graphics were intriguing to me.

There was something about the way I’d been taught that made me feel like I needed to ask someone to play the video game for me while I watched. The man is looking for his wife. So here I am asking a group of young men to play a video game where they are in first person looking for their wife who presumably has mental illness from postpartum and trying to raise a daughter in a world she can’t entirely fathom by herself. This idea that we, as people who are imperfect and partially guided by outside forces can be guides to small humans is frightening. In the film I am struck by the attention to motherhood, mental health, and connection to traumatic memory. Therefore when the man as the protagonist of the video game is led by the whims or the will of a woman who forces him to grapple with all she has buried underground is a highly subversive theme, even now.

Kailey Tedesco and M. Perle Tahat are the co-founders of Rag Queen Periodical and met in Eastern Pennsylvania in 2014.

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