Recession Lessons Road Trip Part IV: Cairo Illinois
I ended up in Cairo, Illinois completely by accident. My only goal was to escape the malaise of franchised, interstate towns that seem to chase you across the country no matter how fast you drive. I also thought there would be something distinctly historic and romantic about crossing the mighty Mississippi River on a smaller, two-lane bridge. There isn’t.
Nevertheless, I had expected this route to take me from the Missouri side of the river, directly into Kentucky. Instead, the bridge delivers you to the southern tip of Illinois – a little strip of land at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. So, a little confused as to how I had managed to drive into an entirely unexpected state, I hung a left to drive around and get my bearings.
Welcome to Cairo, Illinois.
The main road in Cairo is a lot like any other strip in a poor city. A lot of services and dollar stores, you’ve got a check cashing place, a bar and maybe a liquor store or two. And being a warm summer day there was a lot of life on this strip as well. Young men swapped stories as they polished oversized chrome rims at the car wash, a thrift store had set up tables for sidewalk sales and young mothers and seniors sifted through piles of last year’s fashions looking for gold. On the other side of the street two industrious little girls sold lemonade while a mangy dog panted on the sidewalk beside them.
My first impression of Cairo was that it seemed like a nice place but I was glad I didn’t live there. I was ready to leave. And then I drove one block over.
Right on the levee of the Ohio River was what I can only describe as a modern day ghost town. It was as if a prosperous little downtown area with high-end hotels, restaurants, supper clubs and streets lined with ornate lamps had been abandoned overnight.
Strangely, it was beautiful.
I couldn’t resist. I had to snap some photos. I found a dilapidated old hotel and got my camera out. While I was working on my composition, there wasn’t another soul or sound around. But this silence was suddenly interrupted by a low rumble and a horrible scraping noise. I looked over my shoulder to see a slow moving truck emerge from an alley with a lawn chair crumpled and dragging underneath it. Instead of getting out and dislodging the lawn chair the driver just carried on, business as usual. That is, he carried on until he decided that what was important enough to interrupt this progress was calling out to me, “You’re supposed to take pictures of something pretty, fucker!”
At first I figured my new friend, this lawn-chair-scraper-guy was just bored and thought it would be funny to shout at me, the only other soul on this stretch of nothingness. But I’d later learn that there might be more to his commentary than meets the eye.
And not to be one that scares that easily, I still wanted to get an idea of what had happened here, so I looked for signs of life. I found only two open businesses on what had to be a mile stretch of abandoned downtown – a bar and the Maytag man. Normally, the bar would have been the perfect place for me to do some sleuthing, but after my little conversation with the lawn-chair-scraper-guy I decided that perhaps the Maytag man would be a little less hostile. I was right. Sort of.
The Maytag man looked as if he had decided to not change anything about himself since the day the town was frozen in time. As if he was the only remaining actor still in wardrobe on this otherwise abandoned set. He wore an old, one-piece mechanic’s jumpsuit and a pair of Buddy Holly glasses. Oh, and he looked to be about 90 years old.
Even in his advanced age he was deceptively quick. The moment I started at him he briskly walked away. Unfortunately for him, his body was built for sprints so within a block I was able to wrangle him in long enough to ask him a few questions, even though he clearly didn’t want to be bothered by the ‘fucker’ with California plates on his car. Here’s our exchange:
Maytag Man: What?
Me: I said how are you?
Maytag Man: No. What do you want?
Me: Oh, sorry…I was just curious…I took a wrong turn back by the bridge and I’m just surprised to find this strip of town. It’s like a modern day ghost town….
Maytag Man: (laughing out loud. I couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic or not. I’d like to believe that I’m just that funny.) That’s exactly what it is! It’s a modern day ghost town! That’s a good one!
Me: So what happened here?
Maytag Man: (gesturing wildly with his hands and speaking very loud.) ALL THE JOBS! THEY WENT TO CHINA!!! THERE’S NO JOBS ANYMORE!
Me: Really? When did that happen?
Maytag Man: What, are you a reporter or somethin’?
Me: Kind of, not really…it complicated. I was just curious.
Maytag Man: Alright then, it just happened. Started in the 1960’s…and then the blacks rioted…all the business owners didn’t want to be here anymore so they just left.
Me: Can I take your picture?
Maytag Man: No.
At this point I was beginning to wonder if the Maytag man really wanted to be talking to me. So I did the rest of my research online.
Once the importance of riverboat trade began to wane in the early 1900’s, so did Cairo. And although the town has seen some decline due to industrial jobs leaving for overseas, the real tragedy here is that most of its economic wounds are self-inflicted. As the Maytag Man eluded, civil rights riots had torn through town in 1969, but those riots were just the tip of the spear. Much of Cairo’s white population had supported the racial segregation of the south and this created a tension that simmered for decades, then boiled into the late 1960’s. A civil rights organization named the United Front of Cairo led a decade-long boycott of white-owned businesses in Cairo. And instead of simply hiring black employees, white business owners resolved themselves to shut down and move away. As a result, downtown Cairo simply died.
Forty years later Cairo enjoys an unemployment rate of over 14% and more than 33% of it’s 3,600 citizens live below the poverty line.
A once important stop along a boat’s journey down the Mississippi River, Cairo is now simply passed on by. Along Ohio Street, where upper class vacationers used to stroll the banks of the Ohio River bathed in the flattering light of gas lamps, today you find nothing but empty liquor bottles, broken windows and graffiti.
Despite this blight, the Maytag man says that people still come to Cairo. Guys like me. Or as he put it, “Yeah! You’re not so special. People come through here all the time…they get out, they take their pictures, and then they’re on their way. No, you’re not so special at all!”
Perhaps that’s what my friend, the lawn-chair-scraper-guy, had meant to say when he suggested I find a better subject for my photo. That I’m just like every other guy he’s seen roll through town to take a picture of what has come to symbolize the pain that is his town’s history. To him and everyone else in the rust belt, there’s nothing beautiful about empty buildings and the jobs that were abandoned along with them. But the guys like me, as un-special as we are, keep driving in from nearby St. Louis or Chicago because we’re looking for something historic and romantic on our cross-country road trips to New York City. People who hear about these ghost towns from the internet and come to see for themselves that which is strangely beautiful so they too can have their own pictures to post to blogs, Flickr and Facebook. But these un-special people, like me, never spend a dollar in Cairo. Not a dollar at the car wash or the thrift store, or even at the lemonade stand run by the industrious little girls and their mangy dog. Instead they just get out to snap a quick pic of something ugly and drive on to greener pastures.
Next time in Cairo I’ll find something pretty to take a picture of for my blog. Ok, fucker?