Friday, August 08, 2008

My Mississippi Manifest Destiny: Cairo, Illinois--Slum Town

As I posted entries for my previous travel series, My Kansas Kronikles, as well as for this series, I received complimentary e-mails from local and state officials thanking me for my efforts.

I won't be getting those kinds of e-mails for this post.

To get a closer look at the photographs, just click on any picture.

As I noted in my "confluence" post earlier today, the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers meet at the southern tip of Illinois. Cairo (pronounced KAY-roh) was founded in 1837 with big dreams in mind--becoming a major commercial hub because of its strategic location. Shortly before the Civil War began, the Illinois Central railroad came to Cairo, and the town seemed destined for greatness.

But it didn't turn out that way. The Cairo area is of course prone to flooding, so the town had to be surrounded by levees so it wouldn't drown--there was no space for the town to expand. River commerce crested a century ago--Cairo's population peaked at 15,000 in 1920. The 2000 Census found just 3,600 people living in Cairo.

Changes in modes of transportation do not completely explain the exodus.

In the late 1960s, the town became a flashpoint in the Civil Rights struggle. Southern segregationist attitudes, matched with northern gruffness, produced a toxic mix.

White business owners for the most part chose to hire other whites--many of whom lived outside of Cairo. Some of those whites joined the White Citizens Council. Black residents formed the United Front and organized a years-long boycott of these businesses. Both sides lost. Businesses closed, which meant that there were far fewer jobs for anyone--black or white.

What remains is despair. And a lot of rubble. In 1999, Chicago Tribune travel writer called Cairo "a rundown shell." In his Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama wrote that Cairo "felt abandoned."

These are vast understatements. Especially on its east end, it looks like a major battle was fought in Cairo--think Grozny or Sarajevo. On the other hand, it looks a bit like the Los Angeles of Charlton Heston's dystopian Omega Man after forty years of rot.

Cairo has, or had, two major thoroughfares. Washington Street, which is just getting by, and Commercial Avenue. On the left is Commercial on a Saturday afternoon. On the right is the only open business I could find on Commercial--a bar. But the windows on the second floor are boarded up.

I know I may hear criticism that I'm being unfair to to Cairo, that it's easy for me to knock the town from the comfort of my middle class suburb. But ignoring the problems of Cairo isn't going to help the place. "Sunshine is the best disinfectant" is a famous phrase first uttered by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis.

As for people living in Cairo, there is another option--leave. That's the advice the principal of Cairo High School told his graduates at the 1990 commencement.

What will happen to Cairo? My guess is that it's slow death will continue. Already it's the closest thing to a ghost town I've seen in my home state.

But if Cairo is going to survive, something needs to be done fast. Make that some thngs. Leveling Commercial Avenue is a good starting point.

Next: The nicer part of Cairo

UPDATE August 14: My follow-up post, about Cair's better side, is here.


Greybeard said...

Looking at the map, seeing the intersection of two of the busiest lines of communication in the country, you'd assume Cairo would be a hive of activity.

Why is there not a river terminal there, similar to a HUGE rail yard?
Why is there not a bustling facility to fuel, feed, and maintain all that river traffic?

And that ignores the obvious...
If there were a first-class hotel or bed and breakfast overlooking that confluence with a large veranda, I'd be there in a second.

What a waste.
Thanks John.
I look forward to your next.

orb said...


With its turn-of-the-century buildings and great location, Cairo would be poised to be the next Galena expect for one problem. That veranda you want would have to be about five stories up for you to see over the levy.

The problem with Cairo is that it is very flat, and the surrounding rivers are very hard to control. Every so often, the town becomes an artificial island. The railroad bridge photo also shows the portal that is closed at the north end of town during large floods. You can see the large steal door through the trees above. The levies further south in town are higher. And without the levies, it would be washed away in a few years.

I don't know if John has any photos that really show the scale of the levy, but I remember standing in what used to be downtown Cairo several years and noticing how the tallest building in town was not tall enough to see over the levy. It is massive.

Of course, that doesn't address any of your other ideas for the place. I don't know enough about intermodal transportation to explain those away.

John Ruberry said...

Interesting points from both of you. River commerce still exists, only its Paducah, Kentucky and Cape Girardeau that are the beneficiaries of the confluence.

The confluence itself is about a mile south of Cairo. A high rise hotel would be interesting, but Cairo needs more than that view to survive, let alone prosper.

I'm serious about this one. What about a nuclear power plant for Cairo?

Windypundit said...

I haven't been through Cairo since the early '90's, but I still remember it as a depressing place.

The town that really gets me is just up the road from Cairo: Future City. What dreams they must have had when they founded it, to give it such a name.

John Ruberry said...

I was thinking the same thing when I drove through Future City. I'm sure they thought they'd be a Chicago area version of Schaumburg when they chose that moniker.

Future City is not nearly as bleak as Cairo, but it's barely hanging on. It may end being a ghost town.

Greybeard said...

Thanks for the geography lesson Orb. It further explains some of John's comments.
About the nuke plant John-
What about the proximity of the New Madrid fault?

John Ruberry said...

Aw shoot. It's real close to it. There goes that idea.

Oh, Orb, naw, I didn't get any pics of the levee. Sorry.

Windypundit said...

Actually, I think the "Chicago area version of Schaumburg" is Schaumburg, but I know what you mean.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, Orb must have been in Cairo before it was built. There are a number of buildings in Cairo with upper stories that look over the levy wall, albeit only a few that are still occupied or standing.

I do remember in the early sixties standing at the boarded up opening in the levy and reaching over my head to touch the top of the river when it was at its peak. However, the drop-down flood gate at the north entrance to the town has not had to be used in the 66 years of my lifetime, not even when other towns were being washed away. Cairo has been a safe haven during times of flood.

We keep hearing about the horrible White Hats. What a joke. Are you familiar with the Neighborhood Watch groups of today. The White Hats were nothing more, but they certainly made for good copy when journalists were looking for sensationalism to feed the appetites of ravening newspaper subscribers and the United Front was eager to supply stories to excuse their excessively enacted protests.

Future City was built by a man by the name of Futrell for the workers of a concern that was on the north end of the city. As with the name of Twente Crossing Road, someone over the years confused the names Twente Crossing became 20 Road and Futrell became Future.

Errors unabated often shape history as it is come to be believed.

cme said...

Anonymous, White Hats a "neighborhood watch" group? Tell that to my grandmother who had to sleep in her tub at nite while living in Pyramid Courts because the "neighborhood watch" group would shoot into the complex nightly. No regards for women and children. They saw the black community as a threat to their status quo in Cairo, especially once the United Front pushed the boycott. That's the first time I've ever heard of such a twisted history.

Anonymous said...

Holy cow, Cairo makes Melrose Park
look like Wilmette.

Anonymous said...

Ancient Ruins 101.

darby said...

I tried to by all those buildings years ago but would not sell them. I have the people they sell the buildings to and all they do is get what they want and leave and leave the city to clean up the mess. If the city would get a grant I could clean up the city and probably attract more business to the area

darby said...

Cairo is caught in Romans land because you have siskeston to the south 20 miles and there food and truck stops and Cairo is off the interstate with nothing there. Then Marion ill is 40 miles north.paducha is only minutes away with and airport.
The town should try to get waterfoul hunters to stay there with all the hunting around there. The last time I was there about three years ago was a small dairy bar,restarunt,and a small hardware store. And a grain elevator
I tried to buy all those builds years ago but they would not sell them to me

Anonymous said...

I came through Cairo a few days ago, my first visit in almost 40 years.
I was am organizer for Vietnam Veterans Against the War and had been brought to Cairo by a black brother connected to the United Front. He said that one of our Vietnam brothers had been hung in the jail and we needed to see what was going on.
About 15 of us arrived shortly before Christmas and as I got out of the car I was stopped by the sight of bullet tracks from automatic weapon fire traversing across the catholic church's bus. My friend said he had said that I needed to see what was going on.
I returned and I participated in the boycott marches. I brought the matter before my organizations govening body which agreed to support the United Front's boycott.
Returning almost 40 years later, I walked the commercial district where I had once participated in the strike. It was gone. Empty lots where buildings once stood, broken buildings overcome by the elements. Silence. The silence of the grave where racism had been buried. It was satisfying.

Cal Skinner said...

Ben Carson was just in Cairo touring the public housing project, which I believe is scheduled to be shut down.

The Feds have taken over the local housing authority because of corruption.


The new mayor seems to be a reformer.