Saturday, March 14, 2009

Visiting Cairo, 11 March

Have you ever thought about what racism and bigotry can do -- not just to people, but to a city? Well, take a look around at Cairo, IL (pronounced KAY-row, like the corn syrup).

I had heard about Cairo years ago, and since we were in Paducah this past week, we took the day to go over. This is the river city which was the inspiration for Edna Furber's book, Showboat, on which the musical and movie were based. The Lewis and Clark expedition stopped here on its way west. Grant headquartered here in 1861. It was a major lumber port for 30 years handling lumber from southern Illinois, eastern Missouri, western Kentucky and the entire region. I imagined a nice little city like Paducah, only smaller. After all, it DID have two of the world's largest rivers to the east, south and west of it.

This river city, located at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi SHOULD have grown into a prosperous river town. And until the 1950s, it was that. A population of 15,000 in 1920 has now dwindled to just under 3,000. Why?

Economics are part of it. The river traffic has moved elsewhere and centralized, causing a downturn in Cairo's economy. Interstate-57 is several miles away from the city. But more to the point, in the late 1960s, racism and discrimination reared their ugly heads.

The business in town were basically all white. The city hall and police/fire departments were all white. The schools were segregated, white and black. Public housing was segregated.

As blacks in Cairo joined the civil rights movement, racism surfaced. Most whites pulled their kids from public schools when they integrated, leaving mostly blacks there. Blacks boycotted businesses which refused to hire blacks -- and that was ALL the businesses. So whites organized a KKK-like organization, marched down the main street with swastika-decorated posters, and the deterioration, which had begun in the 1950s accelerated. Burning crosses, arson, looting, shootings, all were part of Cairo's landscape for several years. White-owned businesses packed up and left, or simply closed. The city isn't even trying to board up the abandoned buildings any more.

Along the riverfront, there's a 6-story apartment or condo building that's fairly new, in good condition, and outside are parked many fairly new cars. But a block north, a dog lay dead in the street, in front of several derelict buildings.

Today, Cairo has probably the lowest per-capita income in Illinois; the highest unemployment; the most poverty per capita; the lowest educational attainment level; in short, Cairo leads Illinois in all those measures that signify failure.

There isn't even a Wal-Mart within 20 miles.

Yet the architecture and history of the city show through the broken windows and burned shells of downtown. There are mansions along Magnolia Street which would beautify any town in the US. And right across the street, there are rotting, decaying Victorian hulks which are probably beyond repair. Many of the properties in the city are selling for under $40,000, some WAY under, like $5,000 or less.

Racism and discrimination can do a number on people. They can also destroy a once beautiful, bustling city.

Cairo, IL. -- R.I.P.

1 comment:

  1. you dont know what you are talking about i was in cairoin 1955 and itwas a lovely southern small town and the blacks destroyed it and their own livelyhood