Peter H. King
January 8, 2009
By Peter H. King
January 8, 2009
Reporting from Cairo, Ill. — One of this town’s few successful entrepreneurs stood at the grill of his barbecue joint the other day, tending to half a dozen hamburger patties as he contemplated the central mystery of Cairo — how could a vibrant American community tumble into such a blighted, broken-down condition, and why can’t it pull itself back up?
“I don’t understand it,” Darrell Shemwell said. “We’ve got rivers, we’ve got rail . . . we’ve got history. It’s really just pathetic that we are at such an ideal spot and can’t get any growth.”
Protected on all flanks by levees, Cairo (pronounced care-oh) sits at a point where the mighty Mississippi and Ohio rivers converge, a watery crossroads navigated by the canoes of French fur traders and the pirogues of Lewis and Clark, by Mark Twain’s riverboats and, in the pre-interstate era, great flotillas of freight barges.
It also is often said to be where the North ends and the South begins, a description freighted with meaning beyond geography. Cairo, President-elect Barack Obama wrote in his book, “The Audacity of Hope,” marks the “confluence of the free and the enslaved, the world of Huck and the world of Jim.”
Here was where plantation runaways would ford the rivers for the North. Here too was where one of the last major battles of the civil rights movement was waged — a pageant of marches and boycotts and sometimes bloodshed that erupted in the late 1960s and lasted several years.
We had stopped in Cairo on our way to the Obama inauguration, wanting to visit a community that, unlike much of America, actually had some ground-level experience with the president-elect as a public servant.
“He has been here and he has seen Cairo,” said town librarian Monica Smith. “He knows the shape we are in.”
While campaigning for the U.S. Senate, Obama had made an appearance here and, among other complaints, heard from Cairo residents about a decommissioned hospital that had become a public nuisance.
He left those in attendance with the impression he understood the problem and would try to help fix it. In “The Audacity of Hope,” he described taking a later trip to southern Illinois and en route telling an aide about “the progress we’d made in tearing down the old hospital in Cairo.”
As it turns out, the progress wasn’t enough. The old three-story hospital outlasted Obama’s time in the Senate. Still, we didn’t find anybody complaining about unfulfilled promises. The folks we met were satisfied that the feds at least had cleaned up the asbestos and boarded up the lower-level doors and windows, warding off vagrants.
Compared with much of the town’s wreckage, the bones of the Southern Medical Center seem fairly benign. Cairo’s run as a rollicking river town was replaced long ago by a relentless decline that has left its commercial district pretty much a ghost town.
Abandoned buildings run for blocks. Some are so long gone that trees have taken root inside and pushed their branches through the brick walls. The marquee on the Gem Theater, once the town pride, reads: “Wel me T Hist ric C i . . . ” It takes a Vanna White moment to break the code — welcome to the Wheel of Misfortune.
Cairo’s sole factory has been closed, along with many of its retail outlets. Residents not on public aid must commute elsewhere for work. Young people tend to leave and not come back, often joining the military after high school.
“We could have some productive citizens here,” said Mayor Judson Childs, a Cairo native who himself was compelled to pursue a career upstate, working in the prisons. “That’s why I am dying to really get something here where people don’t have to do like I did. There are too many kids walking across the stage, getting their diplomas, and the Army recruiter is there, waiting to take them to basic training the next day.”
Even now, when so much of the nation has invested so much hope in the prospect of change, Childs, the town’s first black mayor, considered the prospects cautiously.
“I think sometimes we are putting too much on the president-elect. You know, I would not like to compare myself to Obama, but this is Cairo, and as the first black mayor everybody thinks, ‘Well, we got Judson now and so now we will get so-and-so and so-and-so.’ ”
People began petitioning for jobs the first day he started to work. “I said, ‘Well I can’t put you to work. In fact, we are talking about laying some off.’ After that, the popularity ratings just started down.”
Cairo, it must be added, does have its grace notes. Stately mansions have been preserved. Many residential streets remain well-groomed. The triangle of levees that protected Cairo through the worst of floods would be the envy of New Orleans.
“And you are not going to meet nicer people anywhere,” said Theresa Phillips, seated at the counter of Shemwell’s Barbecue. The 51-year-old said her daughter had just re-upped with the Army after her first tour in Iraq. Her husband moved away for a job, and she is trying to sell their home and join him, so far without success.
“Look at these,” she said, pulling snapshots of handsome interior wood fixtures from her purse. “The house needs some work, but I am only asking $15,000. You would think . . .”
Cairo has been called “the city that died from racism” — white merchants, in this common telling, shuttered their establishments rather than bend to the boycott and hire blacks. But some who have stayed dispute this version of history.
“It didn’t help none,” Shemwell said of the civil rights struggles that brought the National Guard and national news reporters to Cairo. “But the town was already in decay when that happened.”
Preston Ewing Jr., city treasurer and unofficial town historian, was adamant on the point, saying the notion that the civil rights movement brought down Cairo was “the biggest myth of all.”
From his voluminous files on Cairo’s history, he produced a chart of census data showing the bulk of the population drop occurred in the decades prior to the troubles.
Ewing said the town’s decline became inevitable after World War II as long-haul trucking and air freight began to overtake commercial river traffic.
“The days of the liquid gold were gone,” the 75-year-old said. “Just like the old gold-mining towns of the West. What happens to them? They have to die.”
Still, there is some hope now.
“I have got my fingers crossed,” said Shemwell, who said he voted for Obama. “Him being from Illinois, we might get a little consideration on the future of this town.”
Mayor Childs spoke longingly of attracting just one modest employer to town — 20, 25 employees, nothing more — a trailblazer to establish the path for others. Even that has proved difficult. He inherited a $1.3-million hole in the municipal budget, which has made it difficult to finance the improvements needed to attract new business.
And, Ewing said, with competition now keen among cities, “you have to buy jobs now. You have to give them land. You have got to give them tax breaks. You have got to give them utility breaks. You got to build roads. . . . But is that not a reflection of America today? Where are the jobs going? Overseas, because that is where the best deal is, where they are paying people so little money.
“So,” the historian of Cairo concluded, “Cairo really is just a microcosm of what America faces now.”
Staff writer Peter H. King and photographer Kirk McKoy are wending their way to Washington, sending back reports on the country at this moment of transition.