Cairo, Illinois - Page 6
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By 1970 the population had dropped to a little
over 6,000 people and by the following year, there was very little left to picket as most of the downtown
businesses had closed. For those establishments that remained, the
boycott continued for the rest of the decade.
Once Commercial Street was lined with businesses -- a Hallmark
store, the Mode-O-Day, Khourie Bros. Department Store -- in front of which,
the Hamburger Wagon sat serving up popcorn, greasy burgers, and flavored
sodas; Florsheim Shoes, a music store, photography studio, banks, auto
dealerships, gas stations, and restaurants. All closed now.
Elsewhere in the city, some 40 small neighborhood grocery stores once
thrived. On our visit in 2010, we could find not a single open grocery
store. Cairo's residents were once entertained by numerous speedboat races
on the Ohio River, as half the town sat on the concrete levee wall
watching. Not any more. Another entertainment venue -- the Gem Theatre --
closed its doors forever in 1978 after operating for nearly 70 years.
By 1971, there was very little left to
picket as most of the downtown businesses had closed in Cario. Photo from the book Let My People Go: Cairo, Illinois 1967-73, by
Jan Peterson Roddy, photo by Preston Ewing
Cairo's 44-bed hospital closed in 1986, the town soon lost its bus service, and
in 1988, the City of New Orleans, operating on the rail line, made its
last stop. Though the passenger depot originally built by the
Central Railroad still stands, the trains no longer stop for passengers.
In the end, Cairo
would become the city that died from racism. By 1990, the town sported a
population of little less than 5,000. It's citizens tried valiantly to
save the town when Riverboat Gambling was legalized the same year.
Enacted partially to revitalize dying towns, it was the perfect
opportunity for little Cairo
to have a second chance. However, the State of Illinois, instead, awarded
the license to nearby Metropolis, some 40 miles northwest on the Ohio
River, dashing all hopes of the town's opportunity to revitalize its
economy and population. By
the year 2,000, Cario's population had dropped to only about 3,600
residents. The 2010 census put it at 2,831.
Ewing Jr., Cairo's unofficial historian, former president of the local
NAACP chapter, city treasurer, and participant in the Civil Rights
Movement in Cairo, described the town as "poor, black and ugly." Further,
not having unrealistic expectations, he said, "Our goal should be to
stabilize Cairo, not talk about growth. Potential employers will go where
there is greater viability and an infrastructure to support businesses."
In fact, things were so bad in 1990, that the Cairo High School graduating
class was advised to leave the town by its principal.
Built to support a population of
over 15,000 people, Cairo is a “ghost town” today, by definition -- any historical town or site that leaves evidence of its
previous glory. A third of its population are below
the poverty line. The city is predominately African-American at almost
72%, compared to Caucasian at about 29%. The median income for a
household in the city was just $21,607 in the 2000 census and continues
to face significant socio-economic challenges including education
issues, high unemployment rates, and lack of a commercial tax base, which all
contribute to the sadness of
In the 2010 census, the median income for a household in the city
dropped to $16,682.
The city and its residents have worked hard over the recent years to
stabilize the small town; however, these attempts are often
short-lived, as there is simply no money. The real estate in Cairo is
cheap, and many, intrigued with the prospect of building a business,
have taken the opportunity to start in Cairo. But,
business is slow as residents wonder why these businesses have started
in their small town. Additionally, many residents see these newcomers
as temporary – being too used to people coming to help and then
leaving. After years of turmoil,
Cairo's residents are often untrusting
Despite the town’s rich history, magnificent river views, and attempts
to stabilize it, there are few efforts to promote the area for
South of Cairo, the
historic site of Fort Defiance, which was once an
Illinois State Park,
but, since given over to the City of Cairo, is now
abandoned. Everywhere, there are dismal reminders that less than 3,000
people now live in a city designed for many more.
Alexander County is one of
the poorest in
Illinois. Without businesses that pay taxes, the town
simply cannot afford to provide basic services, much less promote itself.
Many of its residents are tired of telling the story of their blighted
town and just simply want to be left alone.
Still, the historic city of Cairo has much
to offer for history buffs and photographers. Numerous buildings,
including large stone banks, churches, retail businesses and government
structures continue to stand, though their promise was not fulfilled. A
few historical architectural landmarks have been restored; but, what’s left after decades
of white flight and economic stagnation, is an expanse of abandoned
buildings, bulldozed lots, and forgotten history.
however, those who would like to see Cairo revived and some of their
efforts are paying off. In July, 2010,
Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed
a bill that will create the Alexander-Cairo Port District, which will help
attract businesses and jobs to the area. The
Project Manager for Alexander
County is looking for ways to raise funds to promote tourism and students
from Southern Illinois University are working with the locals to preserve
and restore some of the buildings.
efforts will work as the clock continues to tick on Cairo,
that without revitalization, is destined to become a true “ghost
Not everything in Cairo is in ruins.
Someone has done a fine job of restoring and maintaining this
historic home on Washington Avenue. Kathy Weiser, April, 2010.
This image available for photo prints &
From this "Old West"
enthusiast, perhaps Cairo
could learn from many of the "living
of the western frontier -- places such as
Virginia City, Montana; Deadwood, South Dakota;
history is sad, but it is nonetheless fascinating, spans more than 150
years, and represents an important piece of
that should never be forgotten. My vivid imagination can easily "see"
Commercial Street filled with museums, antique shops, restaurants and
music venues -- Washington Street and "Million Dollar Row," filled with
quaint Bed and Breakfast Inns. Perhaps it will one day.
of America, updated September, 2016. Statistics updated January, 2014
based on 2010 census.
Commercial Avenue in Cairo
is all but empty today. On the right side of the street these buildings once
held the W.T. Wall & Co Department Store, the Cairo Public Utility
Commission; M. Snower & Co., a garment manufacturer; and more. On the left side, where the empty
lots are today, once held a Hallmark Store, the S.H. Kress & Co. Variety Store,
a music store, and more. At the far end of left side of the street, the Rhodes-Burford
Furniture Store sign is still in place. It was one of the last large businesses to
close. Kathy Weiser, April, 2010.
This image available for photo prints &
An iron arch welcomes visitors to Historic
Downtown Cairo. Unfortunately, there are few open businesses beyond this
welcome sign.Kathy Weiser, April, 2010.
All images available for photo prints &
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Legends' General Store
Your Medicine Bag -
Native American medicine bag or medicine bundle
is a container for items believed to protect, provide guidance to, and
give spiritual powers to its owner. This ancient concept has been used
around the world for thousands of years. Among the indigenous peoples of
America, most medicine bags hold items such as animal furs, special
stones, traditional or alternative healing items, or anything that means
something to the owner. When you create a medicine bag and wear it close
to your heart you are connecting with your spiritual self.
Choose your bag and fill with items you might find important to you such
as healing crystals, arrowheads, balms, symbolic sage bundles, art,
blessings and more.