I’ve driven through different parts of Pennsylvania over the years but never to Centralia. That might be because Centralia is not easy to find, by road or by map.
Centralia was a small coal mining town in the Appalachian mountain area of Pennsylvania, dating from 1866. With coal mining at its peak in the 1890’s the population reached 2,800 but subsided after that to a more consistent 2,000, where it stayed for quite a while. The real decline though, started later in the twentieth century.
In 1962 there was a fire at the local landfill that changed the whole future of the town. I’ve read several explanations but the most popular seems to be that the fire department deliberately set the fire to clean up the landfill, which was a common practice. However, the landfill was on top of some mine shafts and not only was the fire not extinguished, it actually spread into the mine shafts where it was impossible to reach. The result was that it continued to spread throughout mines, and worked its way beneath the town itself.
In the 1980’s there were clear signs that carbon monoxide from the fire in the mines was having an effect on people’s health and there was significant subsidence going on. This set off the real demise of the town as people moved out (taking buyouts) and by the nineties, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania used “eminent domain” to take control of the town and move out the rest of the residents. There are still a few people left as they refused to move but there’s very little left of the town. The roads remain, a couple of well-cared-for graveyards, and a white church sitting radiantly on a hill surrounded by trees. Buildings have been demolished and a more natural habitat has grown up in their place.
One road that attracts some attention is the abandoned section of PA highway 61 (the road was rerouted) which has severe subsidence and can often be seen with smoke from the underground fire making its way up through the broken surface. Combined with all the colourful graffiti that covers it, it can be quite a strange sight. A strange sight to match a strange story. And still the fire burns on.
Winter outdoors is certainly something you need to prepare for, especially when you’re living in Canada. A climate of extremes, from 30 degrees in the summer to -15 in the winter (that’s in the more moderate Toronto area and not counting the humidity or wind chill), the weather is always the making of a wide variety of outdoor activities.
The kind of outdoors activities that the cold winter kicks off can be quite intriguing. It’s not all skiing, skating and tobogganing, but they do set the stage. I was up and out early one recent morning and took a drive to Lake Simcoe, about an hour away, to see the sun come up across the frozen, snow-covered lake. I’d passed by there a few days before (near Bradford West Gwillimbury) and had an idea of what to expect but I was nevertheless a bit surprised to see the amount of activity going on from well before dawn.
For a good number of people this is primetime for a bit of ice fishing and the place was bustling. Making their way to the lake in their trucks, many bring their snowmobiles, fishing equipment, supplies for the day and of course, there are the numerous fishing huts already out on the ice. Watching all the people in their snow gear (mainly or all men, and a few kids), heading off into the darkness on their snowmobiles or in a snow bus is quite mesmerizing, in spite of the freezing cold temperatures. The shot I took above, shows a hut near the edge of the lake, lit up by the lights of a 4×4 getting ready to head out, just as some light started to appear on the horizon. The sunrise was exceptional that day, with lots of burly clouds lightly illuminated by the brilliant rising sun.
Photography workshops and community projects can work hand-in-hand to achieve common goals.
We all know how photography is used for recording and communicating information about anything and everything, from the mundane to life-changing events. The weather, selfies, travel, birthdays, weddings, funerals, to mention just a few. It’s also widely used as a marketing tool for fashion and any massive range of products. There are though, other ways and contexts for applying photography as a tool, ways that can reflect other life experiences, environment, health etc.
For example, I recently taught a series of six photography workshops as part of an inter-generational project that brought together male youth and older men in north-west Toronto. The workshop was organized and hosted by Rexdale Community Health Centre. The idea was to introduce the two groups to a new interest and skills in a shared learning environment.
Although the equipment we had was minimal and had limitations, we were able over the six workshops to cover camera and photography basics, composition in different settings and subjects, and hands-on work. Most of the group had little or no experience of taking photographs and it was great to see how they became engaged in the subject and have those with some experience share their skills as the project evolved.
The workshops ended on a high note with requests for more workshops like this, and we’re not done yet. To wrap things up a small exhibit is in the pipeline to show some of the work the group produced, an opportunity for them to show what they’ve learned and how things look from their own perspective. I’ll post details when they’re firmed up so watch this space for part 2.
Photographing buildings can produce material for marketing, highlighting architectural styles, recording personal, community and cultural history as well as plain old showing off all sorts of patterns, shapes and colours. I love photographing buildings all sorts of buildings and architecture but scouting around old and derelict buildings for interesting images is one of my favourite activities. I recently posted a link on my Facebook page to a set of photographs from an urban exploration of empty buildings in downtown Detroit. Even through the rubble and the decay you could see the splendour, vibrance and richness of days gone by. Buffalo is another city that has a lot of empty buildings that speak to a once thriving industrial era that saw the construction of some massive and grandiose buildings.
As you can see from the picture above, one of these is Buffalo Central Terminal, which is currently undergoing some restoration. Opened in 1929 it’s a 17-story Art Deco building designed by the architects Fellheimer & Wagner for the New York Central Railroad. The sheer size of the building is awe-inspiring and a walk through it gives you a sense of how busy it used to be, with its ticket desks, newspaper stands, central clock and high ceiling and doorways.
Buffalo City Hall is another mammoth building and a fine example of Art Deco architecture with it’s red brick and ornate decor, and this one is also currently in use. In fact, it’s quite a busy place, housing the mayor’s office, council chambers and so much else.
While some of these remarkable buildings around the city are still in use, and some are being restored, there are many – factories, mills, houses – that are left empty and are presumably destined for demolition. A sign of how much the city has changed.