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.