“I enjoy your pictures of the history of places frozen in time and the aged areas once thriving. You should check out Cairo.”
The trip to Cairo, Illinois, started with a message from a friend of a friend, and he was right. Cairo is frozen in time. A cracked, peeling, crumbled, beautiful, deserted version of what it used to be. Kudzu grows up porches, walls and screen doors, but abandoned houses still have couches, chairs and remnants of the last people who lived there. Behind locks and covered windows are stores still filled with dolls, lamps, mirrors, bed frames, bicycles and coffee tables.
A front window is broken out of the A.M.E Church built in 1918. Spiderwebs and dust cover the pews, ceiling tiles sag from water damage, and the clock below the mural of an angel is stopped at eleven-forty. But the silver collection plate still shines at the altar and the Bible on the pulpit is open to a picture of Rebekah at the well. A black umbrella leans against the front pew close to a box of tissue and fans spill out of a basket by the door.
All ready and waiting on the next Sunday service that will never come.
There was once a theater, bowling alley and many restaurants, but there has been no new construction, no revitalization, no visible signs of progress in Cairo in almost 40 years, so it is easy to stand in the ruins and feel the force of history where the past is still a part of the present.
Cairo is the county seat of Alexander County, one of the poorest and fastest depopulating counties in the United States. The flat, fertile fields and streets of homes and businesses that have seen better days feel like the Mississippi Delta. Thick fog rolls in at sunrise and there are more rabbits than people downtown when the sun finally burns through.
Located at the southern tip of Illinois on a peninsula between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, Cairo is only a bridge away from Kentucky and Missouri. It is two-and-a half hours from Memphis but six hours from Chicago, closer to Graceland and Beale Street than Wrigley Field and Navy Pier.
This tip of the triangle is also where the stories of Cairo begin. In 1803, explorers Lewis and Clark saw the Mississippi River for the first time. They learned celestial navigation and surveying skills before they explored and mapped the newly acquired Northwest Territory for President Thomas Jefferson.
Almost 60 years later, that point became Fort Defiance, a Civil War camp built in 1862 by Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant when he took control of the forces at Cairo. It was the beginning of Grant’s Civil War career, and he stayed in Cairo for six months. At that time, it had a population of 2,200, about the same as today. But then it was called a “boom town.” It was a heavily defended supply base and training center for troops during the rest of the war.
Because it was the first city in the Union and so close to the borders of slave states Kentucky and Missouri, Cairo was freedom and a stop on the Underground Railroad for escaping slaves on their way to Northern cities. They were shipped north on the Mississippi and then transferred to railroad lines headed to Chicago. In Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck and Jim are aiming for Cairo to set Jim free.
At one point, Jim cried:
“We’s safe, Huck, we’s safe! Jump up and crack yo’ heels, dat’s de good ole Cairo at las’, I jis knows it!”
But it wasn’t “good ole Cairo.” Twain made them miss Cairo in the fog and float back into slave country.
There was also a contraband camp during the Civil War. Runaway slaves, called contraband, might have been free, but they had no place to go so the Union placed them in camps providing minimal food and shelter. Cairo’s black community began with these runaway slaves.
After the war, Cairo flourished from commerce on the railroad and rivers and by the 1920s, and swelled to approximately 15,000 residents.
The boom ended when new bridges and highways bypassed Cairo and replaced steam and rail. Cairo was geographically in the north but it had bigger racial problems than most places in the South. From the segregation of little league baseball and public swimming pools to lynchings and riots, Cairo almost destroyed itself over black and white. The white community created the White Hats, and the blacks had the Cairo United Front.
On July 16, 1967, Robert Hunt, a 19-year-old black soldier home on leave, was found hanged in the Cairo police station and this sparked aggressive protests and riots in Cairo’s black community. There was fighting in the streets, shootouts and firebombings. The riots destroyed stores and businesses and the governor sent in the state militia to help restore order. In 1969, more than 170 nights of sniper fire were reported and from 1968 until 1972, and all high school sports games were road games because no other high school teams would go to Cairo to play, according to a story in the Washington Post.
The riots put Cairo in the national spotlight due to the clash between one side hanging on to the good old days and the other side pushing for a better future.
So, as Christmas, 1970, approached and the tinsel went up along Commercial Avenue, Cairo looked much like any small American town at holiday time. But it wasn’t. Cairo had known palmy days and a grandiose dream. For whites, the good days were gone and the dream had soured; for blacks, who never shared the good days, the dream lay ahead. And the gap between those dreams and reality ached somewhere deep in people’s guts.
In the summer of 1969, the Cairo United Front began a decade-long boycott of white-owned businesses in town but the boycott ended when there was nothing left to picket because most of the businesses had closed. The point had been made, but Cairo and all of her people, black and white, lost. Many of the white residents gave in, boarded up, and moved away and Cairo never recovered. St. Mary’s Hospital closed 30 years ago because the community became too small to support it.
Then there was the Flood of 2011, when the Army Corps of Engineers saved Cairo by blasting a large hole in a levee along the Mississippi River, flooding Missouri farm fields instead of the town. Missouri filed a lawsuit to block the levee’s detonation and protect the farmland instead of the city. Republican House Speaker Steve Tilley had to apologize when he said he would rather see Cairo than Missouri farmland underwater.
“Have you been to Cairo?” Tilley asked. “OK, then you know what I’m saying then.”
Cairo survived the flood but it might not survive its new crisis, the closing of its two large housing projects. The 185 families living in the Elmwood and McBride apartments were told in April that their homes will be torn down and they have 120 days to find a new place to live. They will receive tenant protection vouchers for housing outside of Cairo because there is nowhere else in town for them to go. Signs around town say “Fighting for better living conditions” and “Save public housing now.”
The apartments were built in the early 1940s, and have received little maintenance in 70 years. HUD (The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) took over the projects in 2016, after years of abuse, neglect and misappropriation of funds by the Alexander County Housing Authority. The federal agency said the apartments are uninhabitable because of mold and infestation but there is no money to fix them or to build new developments.
“This, unfortunately, is a dying community,” said HUD Secretary Ben Carson before a Senate panel.
The problem doesn’t stop with forcing the low-income families out of their homes and away from friends, family and the only community they have ever known. Students will start new schools in the fall and the Cairo schools could lose approximately 200 students according to the New York Times, a devastating blow to schools that depend on enrollment for funding. Losing that many students means job cuts and the schools are the biggest employer in town.
In the past two years, Cairo lost its last grocery store, gas station and drug store. There is not even a laundromat. People drive to Kentucky for gas and groceries and late-night cigarettes. There are only two restaurants in town and Nu Diner closes at 7:30 p.m. Despite all of this, there are people who have stayed because Cairo is home, because it is family, because they still care.
After everything it has been through, Cairo is worth caring about. The potential is still there with cobblestone streets in front of a manor named Rivermore and magnolias growing along the edges of St. Mary’s Park. There are Victorian cottages and houses with big porches, domes and turrets that can be bought for cheap and salvaged. There is a church on every corner, old men launch their boats to fish in the Ohio at sunrise, and people come together for breakfast or barbecue at Shemwell’s. A full moon rises and shines a silver reflection on the Mississippi, and the setting sun turns clouds orange and pink where the rivers meet.
“Believe it or not, Cairo was once better than St. Louis or Memphis, with any store you wanted,” says Bobby Brigham, who grew up around Cairo. “Now they are going to tear down the housing projects. We need to fire our mayor and all of them and start over. We need someone new over the whole town, someone from out of town to help.
“This town should be able to have anything we wanted. We even missed out on getting a gambling boat. Cairo will come back sooner or later but I may not be alive to see it.”
I rode around Cairo with Wes Chumbler, who runs the two liquor stores his family has owned for 42 years. These are the two parking lots that always have cars. As we drove through streets and down a levee, Chumbler told the history of the town, of houses that have suspiciously burned and why he thinks there is more to closing the projects than bad living conditions. It sounds like a real life John Grisham novel.
“This is the one of the best pieces of underdeveloped land in North America where two major rivers come together,” he says. “We should be better than this. There seems to be a hand behind the land seizure. I have heard of gentrification but I have never seen a town die. The people tried to organize and the politicians say they need to do something but they aren’t doing anything.
“Twenty-seven years ago the head of county housing was elected mayor,” he says. “He worked for both for 15 years. He spent no money on maintenance and broke the town and the housing project. To me it seems like they had it planned a long time ago that they were going to empty the black people out of this town. They are making room for the port they want to build on the river that is close to the projects and they have already started clearing the land around the levee.”
Chumbler says race keeps coming up even though people should have learned a lesson when it almost killed the town.
“It is 2017, you would think it has changed, but race is still relevant and older people still cling to that,” he says. “It seems like after the race riots they had a systematic plan to get rid of the black people. They didn’t do the maintenance on the houses as if they knew one day they would have to tear it down and relocate everyone. Then they could rebuild things the way they want to. It seems like something is going on with the utility company, the city and the port. I don’t know what they are going to get out of choking off the city, but we are at that day.”
Chumbler grew up and played football and basketball in Cairo and his dad was a coach. After college Wes opened a bar in town, but the competition wanted it shut down. He also admits he was “young and brash and may have rubbed people the wrong way.”
Late one night, two men entered his bar and attacked him with a broken beer bottle. He fought back with an aluminum bat but was charged with battery because the fight left his property and ended across the street. Part of his plea agreement was that he had to leave Cairo for 20 years. His life spiraled during that time and he found the Lord in prison. He returned to Cairo on April 1, 2013, to help his family and earn his second chance.
He hasn’t given up on his hometown and has bought about 15 houses over the last two years because he didn’t want to see them torn down. Abandoned houses are sold at auction with a starting price of $640.
“One house was covered in kudzu, but I pulled that off and there was a beautiful house under it. I tried to buy the Belvedere Motel three years ago through the online auction. It needed cleaning and updating but it was fine. I bid on it all day but the last two minutes, someone outbid me and I didn’t get the chance to counterbid. A flatbed truck came in and took away the Belvedere sign and that is all they have done with it. They opened all of the doors up and and people went in and ripped the copper and wiring out. I was going to update it and let day workers stay there by the week. They let people destroy it.”
Chumbler said someone started burning down houses in the mid-’90s. That was hard to believe until we drove through streets of empty lots where weeds and trees grow over cracked foundations. While I was taking pictures of a charred house, an old woman stuck her head out of the house next door and asked if I was going to tear it down. “I wish someone would tear that down.”
‘They blamed the fires on kids and vandals, but there had to be more to it because the arson rate was unbelievable,” Chumbler says. “If it was decent they burned it, unless someone was living in it or using it. It is like they knew they were going to tear these housing projects down and didn’t want the people to have places to go. All of these blocks were full of houses and businesses. There are more houses that burned than we have left. Look at this block: burned, burned, burned.”
“It is still hard to see this. My past is gone and I don’t know what is going to happen in our future.”
A mural on Cairo’s levee wall says, “These murals are dedicated to the ambitious spirit of the many people from the first American to the latest Cairoite who has dared to dream in making life better for their family and fellow people in, or around, this island peninsula called Cairo. To the visitor, may you develop a passion for history. May you spend a moment and pray for, or ponder, on how something came from nothing hundreds of years ago and how we should preserve what is left of it. Lastly, may it be our attitude to dream new dreams and use them to inspire others.”
What is left of Cairo should be preserved. The city deserves people who believe in second chances and look beyond the past to dream new dreams and inspire others. Can that happen? Or did a past of corruption and hate seal Cairo’s fate?