Cairo Association of Teachers - Newsletter

CAT Tracks for July 30, 2007

From the Southeast Missourian...

A building lay in ruins at the corner of 10th Street and Commercial Avenue in Cairo, Ill., one of many abandoned and vacant properties in the town. Bob Swenson, an architecture professor at Southern Illinois University, is leading an effort to look at ways to redevelop the struggling city.

Taking stock in Cairo

By Mark Bliss ~ Southeast Missourian

CAIRO, Ill. -- Abandoned buildings crowd the landscape of this river town. The dilapidated buildings and vacant lots now define a city burdened with a declining population and tax base. Too few businesses. Too much poverty.

But beyond the eyesore of vacant land and abandoned buildings, Southern Illinois University architecture professor Bob Swenson sees opportunity for redevelopment.

Swenson is heading up a project to inventory the buildings and empty lots in Cairo.

The effort will get underway this fall semester. It will involve urban study students from the Carbondale, Ill., university, the Cairo Rotary Club, the Southern Illinois Development Empowerment Zone organization and community volunteers.

Architecture students in his urban study classes have been involved in a similar task in the flood-ravaged Ninth Ward of New Orleans.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Swenson and his students visited New Orleans last year to inventory buildings in the Ninth Ward.

Swenson said there are noticeable similarities between the Ninth Ward and Cairo.

"Cairo is sort of like our New Orleans," he said.

The New Orleans neighborhood once was home to 20,000 people. Today, the population has dwindled to about 3,000.

Cairo, which has seen its population decline for decades, has about the same number of residents as that section of New Orleans, Swenson said.

Both cities are on the Mississippi River. "Some of the architects who helped lay out Cairo in the 1830s helped lay out part of New Orleans," Swenson said. Both communities have historic buildings, he said.

Swenson said any redevelopment effort in Cairo must start with identifying what's left in terms of buildings and land and identifying their owners.

Forms will be filled out detailing the properties and digital photographs will be taken at each site. The information ultimately will be stored on a computer, providing an online inventory.

Swenson's architecture students will be assigned the task of coming up with proposals to redevelop neighborhoods by semester's end.

Even after that, Swenson intends to keep the project going through the fall of 2008. He said he would probably involve four or five independent-study students in the project next spring, a class of historic preservation students next summer and another class of urban study architecture students in the fall 2008 semester.

"We want students and local people to work together on ideas," he said.

Swenson said he hopes to involve Cairo High School students and local residents attending Shawnee Community College in the project, too. "We are trying to engage young and old in the process," he said.

That, in turn, could help bring the community together. "One of the things you would hope would come out of this is that people would get to start knowing each other better," Swenson said.

Swenson held a public meeting in Cairo on July 17 to explain the project. About 30 civic leaders and area residents including the mayor attended the meeting. A second meeting is scheduled for Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. at the First Presbyterian Church at 1708 Washington St.

Swenson said he intends to instruct the group on how to fill out a building inventory form and what needs to be photographed on digital cameras.

Rotary Club member Bill Harrell, an electrical contractor in Cairo who previously headed up the city's fire department, has volunteered to help inventory buildings and tracts of land.

He said such an inventory could be useful to businesses seeking to locate in Cairo and developers.

It's often difficult, he said, to track down the owners of vacant buildings and lots. "There are a lot of absentee owners," he said.

In the early and mid-1990s, the city tore down 80 to 90 vacant, dilapidated houses annually, recalled Harrell.

But hundreds of vacant houses still stand today, he said.

Some, he said, could be renovated. Others are in such poor condition that they need to be razed, Harrell said.

The upcoming survey could help determine the potential for redevelopment of abandoned buildings, he said.

Harrell said the Cairo Rotary Club feels the project is one way to help improve the community. "We're just trying to get something going," he said.