Welcome to Cairo


Cairo Sign

I first heard of Cairo through an indi­vid­ual who jok­ing­ly described the city as the per­fect place for a stand against a zom­bie apoc­a­lypse. The city sits at the dead end of South­ern Illi­nois, and is flanked on all sides by tall lev­ees stand­ing guard against the rush­ing waters of the Ohio and Mis­sis­sip­pi rivers. Drop­ping the six­ty ton, five foot thick flood gate at the entrance effec­tive­ly walls the city in. Yet these fea­tures, which make Cairo the per­fect spot to escape imag­i­nary zom­bie hordes, are intim­i­dat­ing in light of the more real threat of flood­ing, par­tic­u­lar­ly as the lev­ee sys­tem has recent­ly been decer­ti­fied by the Army Corps of Engi­neers.

I vis­it­ed the city on a rainy Decem­ber Sat­ur­day, dri­ving down from Alton. Cairo comes from a peri­od where Amer­i­can cities were bestowed with exot­ic names. The name may be spelled like the great city in Egypt, but in the local dialect, it rhymes with mar­row. As I closed in on my des­ti­na­tion, Cairo revealed itself in an impres­sive way. The flat emp­ty fields along much of I-57 as you go south through Illi­nois sud­den­ly ter­mi­nat­ed in the giant lev­ee wall, sec­tion­ing off Cairo from the rest of the state. You enter the city by means of a viaduct which tun­nels through the mas­sive lev­ee, pass­ing under the giant rein­forced met­al flood gate raised over­head like a men­ac­ing cur­tain.

At the moment, floods are not the press­ing con­cern, but fre­quent mys­te­ri­ous spot fires are the loom­ing dan­ger. Along the main road enter­ing city, I was imme­di­ate­ly greet­ed by the sight of a fresh­ly burned down build­ing. Its front wall was the only thing still stand­ing, adver­tis­ing for an old estab­lish­ment called “The Speakeasy”. Sus­pi­cious fires like these, attrib­uted to arson, are sta­ples of the city news. There are rumours about what is hap­pen­ing, but if any­one knows for cer­tain, they aren’t say­ing. When I asked a for­mer city fire­fight­er about the fires, he shrugged and cryp­ti­cal­ly replied, “Mice with Zip­po lighters.”

The pri­ma­ry pur­pose of my vis­it was to look at a piece of com­mer­cial prop­er­ty along the main road. A col­lec­tive of indi­vid­u­als on the pop­u­lar Inter­net social forum, Red­dit, had expressed inter­est in work­ing to turn the city around, and learned that a build­ing was avail­able, for which they threw around ideas for a co-op gro­cery or a hos­tel. In an ear­li­er day, the build­ing was used as a Knights of Colum­bus hall. And most recent­ly, it was inhab­it­ed by Chris John­son, the founder of a punk record label, Plan-It-X records. John­son had moved to Cairo, to open a cof­fee shop and used book store. He’d been lured here by Cairo’s prox­im­i­ty to the riv­er, which remind­ed him of his child­hood, and by the very inex­pen­sive prop­er­ty, which promised a rent free exis­tence.

This three-sto­ry build­ing was recent­ly marked down to $19,000. A trip around the city reveals clear­ance rack prices for oth­er pieces of prop­er­ty. On an adja­cent street, an all brick, five- bed­room home with a nice­ly man­i­cured front lawn sports a bar­gain base­ment $59,000 price tag. Around the city, var­i­ous oth­er pieces of prop­er­ty are tagged with red signs list­ing par­cel IDs and notices of a tax sale. An annu­al event dur­ing the month of Decem­ber is a tax auc­tion that fea­tures start­ing bids as low as a hun­dred dol­lars, on run­down build­ings and over­grown pieces of land.

John­son came to Cairo with an opti­mism that he might be able to do some­thing for the com­mu­ni­ty. His relo­ca­tion prompt­ed a nation­al write up in Time mag­a­zine, and he was fea­tured on an NPR radio spot ask­ing, “Can Punk Rock Save Cairo, IL?” But on the Plan-It-X web forums, John­son gives his own account of the hard­ships that plagued the first eight months of the move to Cairo. Of the ten that orig­i­nal­ly signed up to make and offer their sup­port, only two made the trip, with a last minute addi­tion of a third.

Upon enter­ing the build­ing, they had to deal with burst­ing pipes and no elec­tric­i­ty out­side of the ground floor. Just before the shop was to open offi­cial­ly, they had anoth­er seri­ous set­back, when a severe thun­der­storm ripped off a por­tion of the rub­ber roof, send­ing cas­cades of water pour­ing down through the build­ing. Lack­ing the funds to have a con­trac­tor replace the rub­ber roof, John­son fell back to his DIY punk eth­ic, stud­ied up on roof­ing, and patched the roof him­self. With the major prob­lems tak­en care of, the cof­fee and book shop opened for busi­ness under the name, Ace of Cups. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the busi­ness was short-lived, clos­ing just a year lat­er. In a final Face­book sta­tus update regard­ing the clo­sure, John­son laments, “we ran out of mon­ey and ener­gy.”

Busi­ness­es fold­ing in Cairo seems to be old hat for the res­i­dents, who bare­ly reg­is­tered the clos­ing of Ace of Cups. On the day of my vis­it, when I asked some locals about the now emp­ty cof­fee shop, they act­ed with indif­fer­ence, sug­gest­ing that they nev­er saw any­one go in there, and viewed the punk rock own­er­ship with reser­va­tion.

Weird,” one old­er gen­tle­men suc­cinct­ly described them. He took a drink of a tall can of beer, and chuck­led with dis­be­lief at the idea that they were try­ing to sell cof­fee, say­ing that they might have had more suc­cess had they sold beer. In a town that only has one gro­cery sto­ry, there are two pack­age liquor stores, at oppo­site ends of the main thor­ough­fare, like book ends. While in oth­er parts of the coun­try, Star­bucks cof­fee shops are spring­ing up all over the place, they would be for­eign in Cairo, which even lacks the ubiq­ui­tous­ly Amer­i­can McDon­alds and Wal­mart. Cairo just isn’t a grande mocha with no whip and soy kind of place.

It doesn’t seem that beer would have been the answer for Ace of Cups, since the major­i­ty of what lit­tle traf­fic the shop gen­er­at­ed came from bored local chil­dren. John­son expressed that the staff of Ace of Cups often didn’t have the ener­gy to deal with the chil­dren, as the place began to be used as an unof­fi­cial day­care by some of the Cairo res­i­dents. The oth­er use of the space, as a used book store, was also not eager­ly embraced by a city with a very high illit­er­a­cy rate. On the day of my vis­it, used books stuffed in shelves still lined the walls. But the equal­ly well stocked Cairo Pub­lic Library is just down the road, in a very nice build­ing that has so far sur­vived the can­cer that has eat­en up large por­tions of the rest of the city.

The Ace of Cups build­ing, for­tu­nate­ly, has not fall­en into seri­ous urban ruin. It gives the impres­sion that with some love and mon­ey, it could be saved. But the ques­tion remains, who in Cairo would even rise to the task. The side of the brick build­ing has a fad­ing Wrigley’s Spearmint Gum adver­tise­ment at the top, and just under­neath it, a long crack in the brick runs like a scar down the side. The first floor of the build­ing, which was used for the cof­fee shop, presents itself as cheery, paint­ed in blues and bright pur­ples. Some of the side rooms are wall­pa­pered with old road maps.

The ele­va­tor is inop­er­a­ble so you have to use stairs to move to the sec­ond floor, which once held a bar and dance hall. The space is big and open, with crum­bling par­ti­col­ored asbestos floor tile run­ning wall to wall. Over­head, gaps in the drop ceil­ing reveal a tin roof with peel­ing paint. In some places, the tin has fall­en, and you are look­ing straight up to the roof.

The third floor of the build­ing com­pris­es a nar­row room at the front, where the Knights of Colum­bus were sup­posed to have engaged in secret rit­u­als. This may explain why the round­ed win­dows, which would have offered ample nat­ur­al light­ing, were paint­ed opaque on both sides, cast­ing a dark shad­ow in the space. The rit­u­al room fea­tures beau­ti­ful archi­tec­tur­al win­dows and over­head light­ing fix­tures. A sol­id door with two locks and, strange­ly enough, a peep­hole, leads to an attic, which John­son described as the “tru­ly scary part of the build­ing”, fur­ther stat­ing that “the secrets we found behind that door will remain hid­den.” On the day of my vis­it, a brief cur­so­ry look just revealed dusty box­es of KofC para­pher­na­lia and an alu­minum lad­der lead­ing to the roof through a hatch. Climb­ing to the roof, you could see the asphalt ban­dages of the recent roof repair.

With my perusal at the Ace of Cups build­ing com­plete, I was giv­en a tour of the rest of Cairo by a mar­ried cou­ple, for­mer truck dri­vers, who had moved to the area in the ear­ly 1980s. No tour of Cairo is com­plete with­out check­ing out the wounds left by a his­to­ry of civ­il rights bat­tles. For exam­ple, patched bul­let holes rid­dle the lime­stone face of the cour­t­house. We also went to the projects, which was once the scene of an armed stand off between the local blacks and whites.

From there we looked at some of the good spots of the city. The street nick­named “Mil­lion­aires Row” offers some impres­sive build­ings, and even a cou­ple of state­ly his­toric man­sions along cob­ble­stone streets. Near­by St. Mary’s park was vacant on the cold Decem­ber day, but it was a spa­cious and well kept green space. The city is a patch­work, as you move from one block that might fea­ture well kept brick homes to the next block, which fea­tures small run down hous­es improb­a­bly divid­ed into three and four apart­ment units.

My vis­it to Cairo took me to the far south­ern point of Illi­nois. Once you trav­el through the city, the road divides into two lanes with sig­nage for Mis­souri and Ken­tucky, as they split off to nar­row bridges span­ning the rivers just before the con­ver­gence. With­in the span of a cou­ple
of min­utes, you could cross three states. Here you’ll find Fort Defi­ance State Park, a low lying camp­ground and green space that often floods dur­ing the spring. My guide point­ed out a stage that he said had host­ed some bands dur­ing the ear­ly two-thou­sands, but which had sat emp­ty since. It was here that I climbed the view­ing tow­er which ofter an amaz­ing view of the con­flu­ence of the two rivers. As an Alton native that had lived around rivers it was no less impres­sive.

As we were leav­ing, we couldn’t help but notice sev­er­al SUVs marked as K-9 units with­in the park. When I asked a cou­ple of locals lat­er if they knew what was going on, they indi­cat­ed that they didn’t, though they sug­gest­ed the pos­si­bil­i­ty that it was either a train­ing exer­cise or per­haps, more grim­ly, anoth­er bridge jumper.

A trip to the near­by “His­toric Down­town Cairo”, as adver­tised by an ele­gant black iron arch, revealed an appalling row of burned out and cav­ing in struc­tures which had once been a thriv­ing shop­ping dis­trict. Unlike the Ace of Cups build­ing, the major­i­ty of the build­ings here offered no hope of sal­va­tion. Pri­or to leav­ing the city, I stopped at a bar, one of the few busi­ness­es still stand­ing and oper­at­ing in the old down­town. I want­ed to get a feel for the com­mu­ni­ty, and fig­ured what bet­ter place to start but at a bar where alco­hol is an effec­tive stim­u­lus for con­ver­sa­tion.

On the Cairo, Ili­nois mes­sage board on the Top­ix web­site, this par­tic­u­lar bar is accused of hav­ing a wild rep­u­ta­tion. “What goes on behind that fence?” an anony­mous poster asks. What goes on is rather sub­dued, and main­ly amounts to an aging bar­maid, who has the rep­u­ta­tion of flash­ing the clien­tele. On the day of my vis­it, she was off, and the bar was tend­ed by a small, lanky old­er man with a han­dle­bar mus­tache and a leather bik­er jack­et. He intro­duced him­self as a trash-man and part-time bar keep. Even though he was only part-time, he proud­ly let me know that he made more mon­ey that the nor­mal bar­tender. I attempt­ed to order a gin and ton­ic but since they had no ton­ic, I sub­sti­tut­ed a “gin and gin”.

I think he means a ‘dou­ble’,” inter­pret­ed a stout young man sit­ting adja­cent to me.

As I enjoyed my drink, I took in my sur­round­ings. The bar was an emp­ty, spa­cious cav­ern lined with flash­ing video pok­er machines. In the cen­ter of the room sat a pool table, along with a hand­ful of unused tables. No less than three con­fed­er­ate flags hung from the ceil­ings.

How is busi­ness; are you busy?” I asked.

Some days we are and some days we aren’t,” the bar­tender shrugged. “Depends.” “Are there any oth­er bars in the city?” I asked.
The bar­keep said, “Yes,” while the young man clar­i­fied, “Well this is the only bar like this; there are some black bars down the street.” He said it was most­ly a younger black crowd there. When­ev­er the sub­ject of race came up, it seemed there was a divide in how blacks were viewed. Old­er black res­i­dents were giv­en a cer­tain mea­sure of respect, while the younger gen­er­a­tions were viewed with appre­hen­sion.

The city had a sor­did his­to­ry of seg­re­ga­tion, and I won­dered if time had improved the sit­u­a­tion. I asked if they ever had any black cus­tomers. The bar­tender indi­cat­ed that they did some­times. He mused, “We had those two black girls come in the oth­er night, but they were look­ing for that stuff we don’t have.”

He paused, try­ing to remem­ber, while the young man once again jumped in, “Hen­nessy.”

The bar­tender nod­ded, “Yeah, I told them if they want­ed to get some of that they’d have to go to the bar down the street.”

At this par­tic­u­lar bar, the drink of the day seemed to be Busch beer in tall cans. Men would trick­le in by them­selves and get a quick drink before beg­ging off, say­ing that had to get home to their wives. An elder­ly man with a heavy smoker’s rasp chid­ed a man in a high­way department’s reflec­tive vest, “That’s why I nev­er got me one of those women.”

This was a place where every­body knew your name and your spot at the bar. When a gruff old­er man entered, the young guy relin­quished his cor­ner spot, apolo­get­i­cal­ly stat­ing that he didn’t think the fel­low came in on Sat­ur­days. The gruff man took a seat but, the leather stool didn’t sit well with him. He got up and, one by one, felt each of the bar stools, look­ing for his par­tic­u­lar seat.

His hand grabbed my seat cush­ion. “You’re on my stool.” I got a pass, since I was an out-of- town­er, and I apol­o­gized as I swapped chairs with him. In doing so, I couldn’t tell the dif­fer­ence between the two stools, and won­dered in amuse­ment how he could.

The gruff man expressed his dis­sat­is­fac­tion with the col­lege foot­ball game that was play­ing on the wide-screen TV. “Back and forth, back and forth, and they accuse NASCAR of just turn­ing around in a cir­cle”, he said, before call­ing for the remote con­trol and flip­ping over to PBS, where Antiques Road­show was play­ing.

On the tele­vi­sion, a lady was amazed to find out that an antique stat­uette she had found was worth thou­sands of dol­lars. “I’ll give you ten dol­lars,” one guy yelled out from the bar. While the Antiques Road­show at first struck me as an unusu­al fit for a self-pro­claimed “bik­er bar”, it seemed to fit the char­ac­ter of the city of Cairo. Who real­ly knew what trea­sures lurked under the caved-in roofs of these old homes? In my brief walk-through of the Ace of Cups build­ing, I had spot­ted a heavy old safe under the bar, and won­dered if it had any val­ue.

When they asked why I was vis­it­ing, I com­ment­ed that I was look­ing at a piece of prop­er­ty in the city. The gruff man pro­ceed­ed to tell me about var­i­ous oth­er loca­tions that he knew were com­ing up on the mar­ket, as peo­ple were leav­ing for near­by cities like Cape Girardeau, Mis­souri and Pad­u­c­ah, Ken­tucky, look­ing for jobs that Cairo can­not pro­vide. The gruff man said he would sell me his place for the right price. The same with the thin man next to me, in the out of sea­son orange hunter’s jack­et and cap. “I’ve got a fix­er upper that I’ll let go cheap” he said, adding wist­ful­ly “I’ve been think­ing about get­ting away myself.” The young man asked where, and the oth­er man rat­tled off a few places in a ran­dom fash­ion that seemed to say, “any­where but here.” The over­all impres­sion from my vis­it to Cairo, and from my brief con­ver­sa­tions with the locals, was that every piece of prop­er­ty could eas­i­ly be had, the result of a mass exo­dus from the dying riv­er city.

The stool warm­ers turned to com­plaints about the city. One sug­gest­ed that the high prices from the local util­i­ty co-op were due to cor­rup­tion, while anoth­er argued that the prices were sim­ply the result of poor­ly insu­lat­ed hous­es. Anoth­er man was upset that the city had picked up his loose dog and held it for ran­som over the week­end instead of allow­ing him to sim­ply pick it up on Fri­day. The young man sug­gest­ed that they did that to increase the fine. In retal­i­a­tion, the dog own­er expressed that he was done mow­ing an aban­doned lot adja­cent to his house for free.

Through­out Cairo, you see plen­ty of vacant lots. In the nicer parts of town they are man­i­cured with care, in oth­er parts they are hasti­ly chopped with a brush hog, and in oth­ers still, they are full of weeds and dis­card­ed piles of trash. The men felt that there was no civic pride, and that the street depart­ment was more inclined to dri­ve around a pile of trash in the mid­dle of the road than to pick it up. When I asked what the prob­lem was, they respond­ed, “They just don’t care. No one does.”

There is a notice­able cyn­i­cism on the part of the res­i­dents. They feel have been burned by groups, politi­cians, and indi­vid­u­als like Chris John­son, who had come to the city with dreams of revi­tal­iza­tion, only to give up and move away. It wasn’t that the res­i­dents didn’t love the city, it was just that they had lost the hope that any­thing could bring it back from the sick­ness that was destroy­ing it. They seem to look at the city the way a per­son might look at a loved one with a ter­mi­nal dis­ease, and regret­ful­ly assess that they would be bet­ter off dead.

Next, the bar con­ver­sa­tion turned humor­ous­ly sur­re­al, shift­ing to what meats were okay to eat. The gruff man told a sto­ry about his dad, who got upset when a New York hot dog mak­er was shut down after it was dis­cov­ered he was mix­ing kan­ga­roo meat into his franks. His dad didn’t care what they put in the hot dogs, as long as they tast­ed good.

The young man said, “You know they eat actu­al dogs in some places.”

The gruff man offered that he may have eat­en “dog shit in Nam,” adding that he didn’t care, “as long as it tast­ed good.” The apple, it seemed, didn’t fall far from the tree.

The con­ver­sa­tion then moved to the mer­its and prob­a­bil­i­ty of eat­ing horse meat. A gaunt man in an army jack­et, with a patch over his eye, help­ful­ly sug­gest­ed that you could skin and cut up a horse the same as you could a deer.

With my dri­ve back home ahead of me, I said good­bye to the group and went to my car. At this late hour, the dark­ness of the night fur­ther cast the city as a post-apoc­a­lyp­tic waste­land. I had come to Cairo with opti­mistic thoughts, that it could live up to the mean­ing of its name — Con­queror — and rise from the ash­es with just a lit­tle out­side help. Sad­ly, I left in agree­ment with a local who had expressed pes­simisti­cal­ly that the major­i­ty of the city need­ed to be burned to the ground.

Was there any hope for what good remained? Pos­si­bly, but it seemed that it would take more than con­cerned inter­est groups from out of town, who were viewed with jad­ed dis­trust. For revi­tal­iza­tion to occur, the cit­i­zens of Cairo would have to man­i­fest with­in them­selves hope for a change. They them­selves would have to be brought back from the dead. They would have to retrieve their slow­ly dis­ap­pear­ing civic pride. Dis­ap­pear­ing as increas­ing num­bers left the city to fall into decay and fire, as they them­selves moved on to more hope­ful places and aban­doned Cairo to the fire.

¶ Despatched on Saturday, February 11th, 2012 at 4:54 pm and sorted in Essays. ¶ { ReTweet }

2 Responses

jim wangerJuly 29th, 2017 at 11:21 pm

some­body please turn off the lights if your the last per­son out­ta cairo .…..please.

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