A Town Forgotten

Cairo (locals pronounce it Kay-Row) Illinois lays on a tongue of land between the intersecting Mississippi and Ohio rivers. It is a small (population 2,450), mostly black (roughly 65%), town in a long slow decline (it peaked at 15,200 in the 1920’s).

It looks like a town cleaned up following a natural disaster —entire neighborhoods are grids of boarded-up buildings, empty lots, and car-less streets.

Cairo has no hotels. The only fast food franchise is a Subway — closed the days I was there. The last grocery store left in 2015. For shopping it has a Dollar General and two corner stores.

The decline of Cairo is a version of a familiar story in the US. It is a story of brutal, dramatic, and often predatory economic changes. It is a story of technological progress that hasn’t served everyone. It is the story of crass materialism that has hollowed out much of America and left many folks feeling empty. It is the story of an ugly racism that makes the changes fall heaviest on minorities. It is a story of entire communities discarded, the residents then told to “just move.”

I spent only two days in Cairo, focusing on the present, not the past (it is a past defined by and interwoven with an ugly racism). So I offer an incomplete photo essay. Yet hopefully it provides a glimpse of a town left behind, and an America that over-values winners and forgets everyone else.

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The entry to Cairo is rugged and beautiful.

Beyond the entry is a city empty and given over to decay.

Home after home is discarded.

There are well cared for homes — but they are often isolated and alone.

Cairo has very few business. Those that are open feel closed. Those that are closed feel as if they have never been open.

The busiest store is the corner bodega — with most of the business coming from selling fast-food Pizza and wings (Hunt’s Brothers).

The bodega owner, Khalid, came from Tennessee two years ago at the suggestion of a relative. Super friendly, he jokes with everyone who comes in. And a lot of people come in.

I ask him about Cairo, “Most people here are family and related. I have never had a problem here. People said I was crazy to come here. Everyone has been nice and friendly.”

Marva Sager, 47, arrives to get lunch. She works as a teachers assistant at the local school which serves all grades. She was born in Cairo. When I ask her why, despite the decline, she has stayed, “Cairo is my home. It is a small community and it is my family. You can’t just abandon people you grow up with.”

She pauses to talk to a young girl, a former student, with a toddler. They gossip for a few minutes.

“This is a good city. It is my hometown, you know what they say, ‘There is no place like home’, but there is a lot to improve. But it is my home. When you don’t have anything else all you got is your home.”

The “Historic Downtown” is entirely given over to decline. Empty except for the past attempts to revive and market it — the faux traditional lamposts, the brick streets.

I saw nobody in my two hours walking this section. The Cairo Chamber of Commerce was closed.

The Gem Theater boarded and locked up.

Desperate for a bathroom, I peed in this field. I didn’t need to worry about hiding from anyone.

Despite the decay and isolation, most spaces are still maintained. Litter requires people left to litter.

Large tracts of nothing make you feel even more alone.

Just an anachronistic emptiness.

Beyond the flood wall protecting the city from the Ohio River, I did find one person.

Tom Hite, 56, approached me with caution. “I really shouldn’t be talking to a stranger. This town isn’t safe that way.”

“Didn’t used to be like it is now. People with money all left. Like a ghost town now. Like a ghost town.”
 
 “Kay-ro used to be something. We had a drive-in. We had clubs. We had businesses. We had stores. We had shops. It has two rivers but can’t do a thing with them, because nobody wants to invest money in this town.”
 
“You go thirty miles in any direction from here, go to Paducah, Sikeston, or Cape Girardeau, they are thriving. All three of them have Walmarts. So to get anything you have to go 30 miles there and 30 miles back.”
 
 “It was a nice place to grow up, but now you have to lock the doors and you can’t walk the streets at night.”

“Businesses all left after the riots. I remember them marching and the boycotts and then the national guard came. Then businesses left and now there are no food stores or no gas stations.”

Tom pivots to politics. “I voted for Trump. Yes I did, I am sorry to say. My wife didn’t. She is a die-hard Democrat and even though she didn’t really like Hillary, she voted for her. I voted for Trump though, because he could change things. Get things going again. Everything now is made in China, and all our jobs are gone. We need to bring back our jobs. That is just my opinion though.”

He invites me into the cab of his truck to escape the hard wind. He also wants me to see what Cairo used to be, handing me a postcard he keeps in his glove compartment, “This picture is from 1927, when Cairo was something.”

Across town I stop to admire an old house, its front door boarded up, next to a grand tree. A man is sitting on the porch, smoking a cigarette. He sees me and approaches.

Wayne, 51, is polite and soft spoken. He smells of drink. He was born and raised in Cairo, but left town “for a woman” before coming back for his family. “Most of Kay-ro is family. I am related to most everyone here.”

I ask him what he does for a living. “Odd jobs, really all I can get. I did some time in my life. I got shot four years ago. Got robbed. Gangs did it to me, that slowed me down a bit.”

Me: “You used to do drugs?”
Wayne: “Yes, everyone around these parts does.” 
Me: “What types?”
Wayne: “Crack”
Me: “Cairo doesn’t seem like a big drug town. I don’t see needles or vials.”
Wayne: “This ain’t a vial town.”
Me: “When did you start?”
Wayne: “When I was 21.”
Me: “When did you stop.”
Wayne: “Shit. I am still on it. Right now!”

The old hospital occupies an entire section of town, its decaying mass seemingly mocking the town that remains.

A resident walking past, heading towards the assisted living center across the street, sees me composing the picture. “Don’t get too close to that, it is filled with poisons.”

I nod politely and then go to my car and google the hospital. “Superfund Project: EPA to spend $1.2 million on Cairo hospital cleanup is the first link.

One of the few busy parts of Cairo is a HUD-run housing complex. As I get out of my car to take pictures a man approaches me.

Him: “You from the housing authority?” 
Me: “No. I am a photographer and writer and….”
Him: “You here to write about the problems with these buildings? We could use some attention.”
Me: “Not explicitly, I am here to…”
Him: “Damn. These building are falling down.“ 
Me: “They look well kept.”
Him: “Come live in them. They ain’t well kept. They are old and their foundations are rotten.”
Me: “I didn’t mean no disrespect…”
Him: “That is ok. Just we been waiting and waiting on housing authority to show up.”

Another man, backing up in an old car down the block, yells at me from the passenger seat:

Him: “WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE! WHO ARE YOU?”
Me (walking towards his car): “I am a photographer….”
Him: “I ASKED, WHO ARE YOU! WHAT IS YOUR FUCKING NAME?”
Me: “Chris Arnade.” (I reach his car. He is a young teen being driven by an older woman. I offer my hand. He stares at me.)
Him: “Are you Sean Michael Smith?” 
Me: “No. Who is he?”
Him: “FBI Agent who been coming around these parts.”
Me: “No I am not that.”
Him: “You sure? You look like Sean Michael Smith.”
Me: “I am sure. I can show you my driver’s license.”
Him: “You look like Sean Michael Smith.”
Me: “I am not.”
Him: (As the car moves away, he hangs his head out the window) “Well if you a white guy coming around the hood you gonna draw attention. What is your name again?”

Shambrae 25, stands by as I talk to the young man. After he leaves she comes up to me, “Don’t worry about him, he is on drugs.”
 
When I ask her about the homes, she says, “I ain’t from around here. I didn’t grow up here. I come from the northside of town, not these here projects.”

Then I ask her about Cairo and she smiles, “It is home, I love it. I might dislike some things, but this is the only thing I know. I didn’t finish high school. I got pregnant at 16. Hard to finish school once you got a child. Now I got two, one eight and one three.”

She sits quiet for a few moments, then lets loose with a poetic rant, more sung than spoken,

“We are a town with a lot of hopelessness, lot of sorrow, lot of despair, lot of pain. But we are good people, smart people, who could show that if we had opportunity. We can be productive, but there is no grocery store, no gas station, no resource center. Nothing is here. We have to go out, travel to do anything. To get groceries, to get gas, to go to school, anything.”
 
Me: “That was really powerful.”
Shambrea: “Thank you, I think about this a lot.”
Me: “You should write it up.”
Shambrea: (Smiles) “Well I am going to school. I am getting my welding degree at Shawnee Community College, the only girl in the program.”
Me: “Congrats! That is great. When you finish are you going to stay or leave Cairo.”
Shambrea: “I want to stay. If there are jobs. Because Cairo is my home.”

Cairo is a stark version of countless towns and neighborhoods that fill the US. They are not rare, or confined to one place or race. They are in every state, red and blue. The glib cliches for these communities (especially minority ones) have become derogatory: Left-behind, fly-over, ghetto, inner-city, urban or rural blight.

They are derogatory because they come loaded with judgement.

Regardless, we need to speak and write about these communities. Most importantly, we need to listen to those who live there.

“For Sale. Bids starting at $640”

There are plenty of empty buildings to take pictures of. But there are also plenty of people living in communities punctuated with those empty buildings. People who are trying to make the best of a bad situation.

I kept running into Coco Cornelius, 29, in the bodega as she babysits a niece. She is super sweet and polite. Born in Cairo, she moved to Detroit after her mother died to stay with her grandmother.

A year ago she moved back to be with her extended family. She makes money “doing hair. There really are no jobs in Kay-ro. You have to go outside for work.”

I ask her why she came back.

“No matter where I go, I come back to Kay-ro. It is one thing to jump up and leave, but you got to be ready to pay a lot, and I don’t have a lot. You also got to be ready to miss your home and your family. I guess I am just not ready.”

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Didn’t like this? Feel I am missing something? Yell at me on twitter here: Chris_Arnade

I have spent the last two years visiting communities like Cairo all across the US. You can read my longer pieces here: Chris Arnade at Guardian