Cairo Association of Teachers - Newsletter


From the May 20th New York Times...

This Land
Where Two Rivers Converge and Two Histories Divide


Four city workers set out this morning to whack the weeds sprouting several inches high from the deserted downtown sidewalks. With machines whining, they inch down Eighth Street, trimming in front of the grand Gem Theater, empty, in front of the florist’s, empty, around the entranceway tiles that spell out the name of Michelson, the jeweler, empty.

They make their way to Commercial Avenue, where rows of old buildings stand vacant or abandoned. Behind the brick facades, which evoke a silent movie set waiting still for the shout of “Action!,” sunlight pours through collapsed ceilings, and trees grow from broken floors.

If inclined, the workers could step into a trashed old tavern, there before their great-grandfathers were born, or peruse the peeling tin ceiling of an ancient shop across the street. But with appearances to maintain, they whack that purple-flowered plant rising near the lobby of Maxine’s clothing store, empty.

The small city of Cairo does not need another wide-eyed pilgrim passing through, whispering, Oh my God. Its people have better ways of spending their time than explaining, yet again, why the place looks the way it does.

But this is the dilemma of Cairo, defined as much by its proud and shameful history as by its position at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. Since it entices visitors with billboards celebrating selected points of historical interest, it must endure the painful questions that arise from glancing beyond those selected points.

“The long-range goal is to restore some of those buildings,” says Judson Childs, the recently elected mayor. “How far down the road that is, I don’t know.”

He says this with a justified hint of weariness, because the road has already been long and hard for Cairo (pronounced CARE-oh), a place once accustomed to being at the center of America.

Lewis and Clark camped near here in 1803. Charles Dickens called it “a dismal swamp” in 1842, a rating that Mark Twain upgraded to “brisk town” in 1883. By then it was a thriving port, its location having already proved advantageous to merchants and, in the Civil War, to Ulysses S. Grant and the Union Army — even though, sitting at the bottom of Illinois, it has always been a Southern town uneasy in Northern garb.

By the early 20th century, the triangular city seemed on the verge of urban distinction, blessedly situated, possessing at least two ingredients necessary for a great metropolis, affluence and bawdiness. But various factors conspired against Cairo, including Cairo itself.

The river water seeped, the riverfront economy declined, and the river-locked geography thwarted industrial growth. Then the Great Depression hit, and the population, which had peaked at more than 15,000, began to shrink. Cairo no longer wore its hat cocked.

Eventually, a civil rights struggle in the late 1960s exposed Cairo as a simmering, segregated town that blocked its sizable black population from having any say in government. Armed conflict and a protracted business boycott by black residents marked those ugly years.

The city continued to bleed people and businesses. Poverty took root. A casino opportunity went elsewhere. For the past four years, the previous mayor and City Council members fought so vehemently that police officers often stood near the door at meetings, just in case.

“Nothing got done,” Barbara Wilson, the managing editor of The Cairo Citizen, says. “Not anything. Nothing.”

Preston Ewing Jr., a native of Cairo who was the president of the local chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. during the strife, says that some white residents still blame the boycott for the city’s decline. “Of course, of course, of course, civil rights killed this town,” he says, his impatience with the thought reflected in his every word.

The idea that the fight for justice killed Cairo is clearly a sore subject. With his tone changing to matter-of-fact, Mr. Ewing recites census data and presents old newspaper articles that he says demonstrate an exodus “irrespective of civil rights and boycotts.”

Now 73, still lanky but with hair gone gray, he stands in the foyer of what is essentially his second home, the majestic Cairo Public Library, a red-brick and stained-glass remnant of the city’s glory days that he did not enter until he was well into his 30s. Segregation, you see.

Last month, when Mr. Childs, a retired corrections supervisor, became the city’s first black mayor — something he takes pains not to emphasize — he appointed Mr. Ewing city treasurer, a job Mr. Ewing had held in an earlier administration. They and the City Council now oversee a city so mired in problems that students from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale earn credits trying to come up with solutions.

For one thing, no one can afford demolition. So, in the residential area, historic mansions and well-maintained homes sit beside abandoned mansions and decrepit homes — eerie reminders that only 3,600 now live in a city designed for 15,000. Even the hospital stands empty.

Still, for all its troubles and past sins, this city has its protectors. Mr. Ewing presses promotional brochures into a visitor’s hand. The town librarian, Monica Smith, works overtime preserving the Custom House and other architectural gems. A musician named Stace England spent years soaking in the history, the good and the bad, before producing a CD two years ago called “Greetings From Cairo, Illinois.” The only problem: You can’t find anywhere in Cairo to buy one.

As the morning sun arcs higher over Commercial Avenue, those city workers continue whacking sidewalk weeds, buzzing their way toward Marcy’s Shoes (“Modern Shoe Service”), empty, and the old neon sign for the Rhodes Burford furniture store, empty.

Soon their machines fall silent. That Cairo quiet returns. And a city of history awaits the next wide-eyed pilgrim.

Online: Additional photographs and audio from Cairo: