All prints signed by Daniel Shippey
TLDR ⚠️ Cairo is an economically depressed city struggling with deep socioeconomic issues. Amazingly it is somehow hanging on and is trying to better itself.
If you have been following me for a while you have heard me mentioned Cairo, Illinois a few times. Some of you may have no idea that this town existed until now. And if you have heard me talk about it before? I'm gonna talk about it again right quick!
I have been paying this broken little town a visit almost every year for over a decade. My brother Philip and I had no idea what we were getting into when we first visited the city in the winter of 2008. We crossed the Ohio River on a narrow 75 year old cantilever bridge— Past the levees and flood walls and into the small river town. It's like the city was within a bowl or behind fortified walls, closed off to the rest of the world. As we cruised through downtown we saw an entire city imploding. Both of us had our eyes peeled and were honestly a little shell shocked. There were entire buildings collapsing into the street whose bricks we had to drive around. Some streets were completely impassable. There were trees growing out of the second story windows of another building. We parked the car next to an old Illinois Central Railroad caboose. Behind the caboose was the tall flood wall keeping out the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. The street was original brick, old and crumbling. It was cold that day, probably in the mid-20s outside. We walked past broken doors, holes in walls, and pressed our noses against the dirty glass of storefront windows. Fogging up the glass with our breath we saw that virtually every building had collapsed in on itself. Wood beams and bricks fell where stores, hotels and theaters used to be. Our feet crunched on broken liquor bottles and discarded trash. The foul smell of urine, decay and poverty drifted up our noses. Weathered paper posters were on every building that read, "The State of Illinois has deemed this building unfit for human habitation." Something paralyzing happened to this town.
Cairo, Illinois was once a bustling river town at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. A strategic locations for defense, commerce, and shipping. Yet also vulnerable to intense flooding. The population maxed out somewhere between 18,000-20,000 in the 1920s. It was a hub for river trade, gambling, entertainment, business, and transportation. Today the town has a population of 2,000 and virtually all of the infrastructure was abandoned after the town's economic decline. It didn't happen overnight but over several decades. When my brother and I visited in 2008 we literally witnessed an entire downtown area that was still standing (more-or-less) and it was almost all abandoned. Today, most of downtown Cairo has been leveled. Wind blows through vacant lots where hotels and businesses used to be. How did this happen?
To sum it up, a series of floods, tense racial relations, and transition in river trade thrust the city into an economic spiral.
Heinous racial crimes like the lynching of William James in 1909 stirred an already boiling pot of hate in the town. More info HERE.
Cairo survived The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and is currently being tested with the current flood waters in 2019.
Again in 1967 racial tensions peaked when Robert Hunt, and African-American man, was found hanged in the police station under suspicious circumstances. The town rioted which resulted in the burning of several businesses and the National Guard responding to the violence.
In 1978, I-57 bypassed the city which essentially ruined the livelihood of the remaining businesses. In 1986 the town's hospital closed.
From 2017-2018 over 400 people were forced to evacuate their homes after a HUD housing project was deemed unsafe for human habitation. Gross property mismanagement lead to the decay of the buildings. Residents complained but no one listened and changes were never made. The event made national news and Ben Carson, Secretary of Housing & Urban Development, visited the city to evaluate the situation and to help work on a solution. More info HERE.
Ultimately, people left Cairo because they simply weren't able to live there anymore. Some people were forced to leave, others simply stopped believing anything good was possible. Those who still remain are living in a world that I cannot begin to understand.
Today, current leadership is doing everything they can to preserve and improve what they are able to. Many of the historic buildings my brother and I saw in 2008 simply had to be demolished— They were beyond repair. The town looks a lot cleaner now but still has a long way to go. I have read there are tourism initiatives to focus on the town's history and relationship with the rivers. I also hear that several new businesses may be opening in the city. Maybe more people will invest in the region to help spur growth and to increase morale. I really hope Cairo will be able to provide good education and healthcare for its people. A stable tax base will be crucial to development. I don't know how the city will be doing 10, 25, or 50 years from now. Only time will tell. 🙏 I hope Shemwell's BBQ stays open forever! I plan to visit Cairo, Illinois as often as I can for as long as I live.
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