Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Denmar Gardens?

Ever heard of the place? It seems like not many people have. It’s a small village just outside of Kulpmont, Pennsylvania. Blink and you might miss it. It’s much different from similar small villages like that in northeast Pennsylvania in that all the homes are fairly swank for such a working-class area: split-level ranch homes with large front and back yards, tastefully tree-lined blocks, even a senior citizen’s center. Probably a few hundred people living there, not sure of the exact number.

Why do I note Denmar Gardens? Let me ask another question: have you ever heard of Centralia? You probably have – if not, the link will let you know much of what you need to know about the mine fire that’s been burning there since the early 60s, and has caused nearly the entire town to relocate. There are now literally two or three houses still standing and a handful of extremely stubborn people living there. They’re outnumbered by the tourists who drive by on any given day to snap pictures of the smoking ground on the Ashland end of town.

Denmar Gardens is where a majority of the Centralia natives relocated when the government offered them generous buy-out deals for their properties – not sure of the specifics, but it may have involved a healthy sum for the home and property, and a low-interest loan for the owner to buy or build a home elsewhere. I think Denmar Gardens may have been called New Centralia for a short while, but quickly took on this new name, more fitting of what appears to be a nice suburban-style enclave, which was a patch of woods before the town sprung up.

Why mention this? Simply because when I poke around the web, Denmar Gardens is the ghost town, and Centralia is all over the place! Denmar Gardens hardly seems to exist and surely doesn’t in any of the dozen or so stories I’ve come across in the past few weeks. It’s a real place, filled with people who lived in Centralia, but for some odd reason, this next chapter of the Centralia story somehow doesn’t fit in with the American gothic myth now being built around this place. (In this version, everyone who lived in Centralia would now be hoboes jumping trains in the midwest.)

What I do see on the web is a lot of strange ghost-town stories about Centralia, focusing only on the fire and the present-day state of the former town. There were many more stories back in the 80s when the town started coming down via bulldozer as people slowly took the government’s deal. The main issue then was when to take the deal, and surely there must still be some burned bridges between those who held out longer and those who took the deal fairly quickly. The hold-outs were convinced that this was all a ploy for the government to obtain mineral rights to their land, thus making millions by mining it. (This hasn’t happened.)

A movie was made at that time, Made in USA , starring the late Chris Penn, Adrian Pasdar and Lori Singer that has footage of what Centralia looked like for those few key years when it all came down: constant noise from demolition crews, row houses with plywood boards over the windows, numbers spray-painted on the boards to designate their demolition dates. If you follow the link, you can still buy the movie for $0.75 on VHS – don’t think it’s ever going to make it to DVD. Naturally, I still find the Centralia part of the movie pretty cool to watch. And the fact that a bar they later visit outside of St. Louis is actually the now long-gone Wooden Nickel just outside of Mt. Carmel, a place where I got tanked a few times in my early 20s.

(Sidenote: a few years after I moved to New York in 1987, I was part of a gym/social club in which Adrian Pasdar was a member. It blew his mind when I told him that a few years earlier, I had seen him and the film crew at work in Centralia while I drove to a very short-lived job at a window factory in Mt. Carmel, the last job I had before moving to New York.)

I guess there’s nothing dramatic about Denmar Gardens, and it’s more of a kick to focus on a smoking hole in the ground surrounded by green fields laced with empty roads where houses once stood. I found some kids on Youtube who did a very short “documentary” on Centralia which focuses on all this aftermath stuff, set to the dramatic orchestra theme music from the movie, Requiem for a Dream. Not sure what all the drama is about. Motherfuckers, it's a smoking hole in the ground. You look at it for five minutes and feel weird. Then you get in your car and go. The film is pretty cheesy, and what’s worse is the kids who filmed it have that horrible mid-Atlantic accent that gives them away as being from southern PA, Delaware, central Jersey or Maryland. I cringe every time I hear that accent. Not a good accent to juxtapose against a region that has a very distinct, more guttural accent. To me, being from that area, it feels like kids with a haughty English accent doing a documentary on Harlem.

But I often wonder about Denmar Gardens. I never really knew anyone from Centralia, and thus don’t know anyone in Denmar Gardens. Sometimes, on a quiet summer’s day, you can drive through Centralia and see a bunch of old geysers sitting in lawn chairs by the town’s war memorial at the main intersection. It would be grand to pull over, whip out a lawn chair and six pack of Yuengling, and find out how those guys feel about all this. But those guys put out such an exclusionary “leave us the hell alone” vibe that it’s wise just to keep driving. It was their town -- not yours.

It's just a bunch of old timers mourning land that was once theirs, regardless of whether the new land they were given is somehow better. I understand how those guys feel. Oddly, that’s more an urban feeling. I know people from the Bronx who will drive around their old neighborhoods on Sunday mornings, places where they were children in the 60s and 70s, silently mutter “what the fuck happened here,” then leave, with that childhood sense of home as distant as their memories. You can go back to the place, but whatever you knew of it, no longer exists.

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