Saturday, January 01, 2011

Ghost Town, USA - Cairo, Illinois

Yesterday I drove through Cairo (pron: KAIR-oh), Ill. and was truly disturbed by what I saw. I drove through it because it's an alternate route from taking 2-lane U.S. 60 across various dikes to I-57 on the far eastern tip of Missouri as you're coming from Kentucky. Going through Cairo will be the only route travelers going this way will have in 2011 as a key bridge across the Mississippi River will be closed for repairs. I am sure this will be the best thing to happen to Cairo in a long time.

From a distance, Cairo looks like a large town. There are several tall buildings and wide streets. But once you enter the town you realize those buildings haven't been occupied for decades. Everything is either burnt out or boarded up. The roads are mostly empty. The signs and billboards are decades old and advertise places that no longer exist. There are not many storefronts. It is a ghost town.(CC) FLICKR/RBMAN

According to Wikipedia, Cairo's population peaked at 15,203 in 1920. It was a bustling town and a center for railroad and water commerce. It had served as an important Union staging area during the Civil War. Now? The 2000 census lists the population at 3,632 and declining rapidly, the 2009 estimate was 2,996. did an article last February about a recent attempt by some young people to open a coffee shop in the town, the first new business to open there in 4 years. We drove by that coffee shop and it is clearly closed with "for sale" signs up now.(CC) FLICKR/GOBUCKS2

On the street I saw drug dealers and the only native vehicles I saw were police cars. The census indicates that the population is predominately black and heavily impoverished. According to Wikipedia,
"the Cairo school district has the highest percentage in Illinois of children in poverty, 60.6%, which ranks fifteenth highest in the United States."

Apparently, Cairo has a history of racial strife. This sad history is recorded in a musical CD effort by Stace England, chronicled by NPR in 2006. Here is a website recounting the history of Cairo--"Death by Racism." Lynchings were seemingly commonplace in the early 1900s. Natural disaster and economic depression caused further during the 1930s. The late 1960s and 1970s saw organized civil rights protests and more violence. Tragically, as African Americans boycotted businesses, the businesses closed up and never returned. (CC) FLICKR/SLACK-A-GOGO

Southern Illinois University's School of Journalism launched The Cairo Project to research and encourage development in Cairo. One researcher found:
"Though most people blame the violence in the 1960s and 70s for Cairo’s economic decline, I found that it was really part of a general decline throughout the 20th century.

… In my research I found that the economic boycott in the 60s and 70s (many white business owners chose to close their businesses and move away rather than hire black employees) was really the final death knell of a town that had already been in decline since the 1920s, well before the Great Depression."

The people in Cairo seem used to being a sort of spectacle, people come to tour their ghost town, shake their heads, and leave. Here is a YouTube clip of the town (note the bridges at the end, driving across these doesn't make me as nervous as they used to and Elias loves them):

I was appalled by my brief drive through the town, I've only seen anything like it in former Soviet Union republics. Never in America.


Dave T. said...

the first lynched was indeed a black man. the second was a white man.
whites are blamed for leaving. I lived north of Cairo on SR 127 near Mill Creek. the stories I heard from former white residents was that they were driven out by crimes committed against their persons and businesses.
During one period of unrest, arsonists started fires and when the Fire Dept arrived they were shot at by black sniper/arsonists. The Chief of Police was killed along with several fire fighters.
Let Cairo R.I.P. It's too far gone. That coffee shop was robbed too many times to stay in business.

Vicki Kurtti said...

How sad, you can see many towns that look like Cairo. I can still see the beauty in the majestic historical buildings. Too many businesses and industry have closed in our county, I joke that pretty soon we'll all be ghost towns. My heart goes out to Cairo during this time of flooding, They really don't need any more tragedy bestowed upon them.