With all the news about Osama bin Laden, less attention is being paid to an ongoing drama in the heartland of the U.S. The Mississippi and Ohio Rivers are running extremely high, threatening multiple locations, but especially the historic town of Cairo, Illinois. Cairo was once a bustling trading center at the confluence of the two rivers with its own custom house and 15,000 people. There were hotels, theaters, and fine mansions. As river transportation fell off, Cairo slipped into decline, which was exacerbated by racial segregation leading to riots in the ’60s, and wholesale white flight. Today, much of Cairo is a ghost town, its main street a ragged line of crumbling buildings interspersed with rubble strewn lots.
In 1989 I traveled with my view camera along the Ohio River from Pittsburgh to Cairo–another of my unfinished projects–due to lack of money. After two or three weeks of shooting, driving southwest along the river, I finally made it to Cairo having no idea what to expect. It was then, as now, a shocking tableau of abandonment.
Along with the abandonment there was a palpable whiff of danger in the air, a few pick-up trucks pulled up at bars, solitary individuals drifting about with no apparent destination. Despite the menacing atmosphere I managed to take a few photographs as the sun went down, and then returned in the morning. Things were much less scary in broad daylight, but equally devoid of activity. As I wandered about with my camera I was approached by a middle aged who turned out to be the head of the chamber of commerce. The fact that an out of town photographer was interested in the place was reason enough for him to invite me to lunch at a nearby diner. He wanted to bring Cairo back–a middle-aged white man in a largely black city–but his blue-suited boosterism, seemed out of time and out of step in this scene of desolation.
That was in 1989–and almost nothing has changed in 22 years except that much of Cairo’s extraordinary architecture has further decayed or has disappeared altogether. In the intervening years some of the historic mansions have been preserved as has the old custom house. But the downtown remains spectral, made all the more so by fancy brick paving stones and retro lampposts on parts of Commercial Street, a superficial attempt at revitalization.
Google Street View of the same building as above.
The reality is that Cairo is a doomed city, a wedge of river sediment between the Ohio and Mississippi walled in by levees. A desperate fight is underway to save the city as the river water threatens to top the flood walls and ground water pressure builds underneath. The city’s 3,000 residents have been evacuated. Yesterday, the Army Corps of Engineers blasted an opening in a levee to the south flooding miles of fertile farmland to relieve the pressure. As of this morning, the levee breech seemed to be working, the water subsiding, but Cairo remains vulnerable. It may survive this season’s flood, but how long can a sandy spit of land withstand the uncontrollable force of two mighty rivers?
Birdhouses in the form of barge tows, a thematic reminder of why Cairo exists where it is. But the river transit that once made this a thriving small metropolis faded like the car industry faded in Detroit, another symbol of American decline. Or if not decline, then abject neglect, a too easy eagerness to shift attention to the next boom town, to the next swath of exurban frontier. Detroit may yet rise from the ashes, but Cairo sits betwixt and between, imprisoned by its history of racial strife and its impermanent geography.
In Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck and the runaway slave Jim float down the big river on the lookout for Cairo, where the clear Ohio water meets the muddy Mississippi. Cairo is Jim’s gateway to the Ohio River and freedom, but they missed their landmark in the fog and drifted on south into slave territory.
There warn’t nothing to do now but to look out sharp for the town, and not pass it without seeing it. He said he’d be mighty sure to see it, because he’d be a free man the minute he seen it, but if he missed it he’d be in a slave country again and no more show for freedom. Every little while he jumps up and says:
“Dah she is?”
But it warn’t. It was Jack-o’-lanterns, or lightning bugs; so he set down again, and went to watching, same as before. Jim said it made him all over trembly and feverish to be so close to freedom.