Sunday, May 01, 2011

Cairo: On the Eve of Destruction?

I was born on February 4, 1969 at St. Mary's Hospital in Cairo, Illinois.  Both of my grandmothers worked at the hospital, one lived in Cairo and the other lived right across the Ohio River in Barlow, Kentucky.  My grandmothers were close friends; they introduced my parents one day at the hospital I am. 

The shell of what used to be St. Mary's hospital in Cairo, IL.  Picture from

I actually grew up in Barlow, my father's hometown.  He worked at a paper mill in neighboring Wickliffe, KY, but I spent a lot of time in Cairo as a youth.  I attended church every Sunday with my mom and brother at St. Patrick's Cathedral and afterward we would usually spend the day at my grandmother's house where I would play with my cousins at St. Mary's Park across the street.

My grandparents house

My grandfather, Norman Hughes, ran the Cairo Greyhound Bus station before it closed due to lack of business; his brother, Raymond, was the chief at the fire department; my grandmother, Rose, (a saint in my mind) not only worked at the hospital, she also cooked meals and delivered them to needy folks through a Catholic charity program.  I can still remember driving all around town in her station wagon with my cousin, Andy, delivering box loads of meals to hungry folks and seeing the smiles on their faces.

My family was firmly entrenched in the Cairo community and my mother's brother even served as Alexander County Commissioner for a period.

The year I was born there was a massive race riot which resulted in the National Guard being called in to patrol the streets and keep the peace.  The city would never be the same after that event and while the economy was already collapsing, the riots seemed to be a catalyst for white flight.  The few companies Cairo sustained would move away over the next few decades and the ones that remained were destined for a slow burn to extinction. 

The city was already in decline when I was born but I did get to see a glimpse of its former glory in my younger days.  In my adolescence there were still department stores, an old pharmacy with soda fountains, a theater (The Gem), an Easter parade, and bars...lots of bars.

The neighboring counties in Kentucky and Missouri were mostly "dry", meaning alcohol sales were illegal, so Cairo was the watering hole for the farmers and factory workers who populated the region, not to mention their wild-ass high school kids (me).  The bars in Cairo were notorious for selling booze to underage kids.  In one bar, The Turf, the joke was if you were tall enough to look over the bar and ask for a beer they would serve you.

Oh, the stories I could tell....if I could just remember them.  The "sin" factor combined with an entrenched sense of racism held by the surrounding farm communities like mine gave Cairo a rather nasty reputation in the tri-state area.  In fact, it was very much like a little New Orleans.

The notorious Turf Club, Picture from

The city is somewhat of an enigma in that for all practical purposes it should have developed into a thriving metropolis.  It is situated on the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers within twenty miles of the intersection of I-57 and I-55.  Cairo also hosts two key bridges in the area which connect Kentucky to Illinois and Missouri to Illinois.  In the 1800's the city even had a U.S. Customs House which monitored its thriving port industry.

Today the city of Cairo is a shell.  Driving down Commerce Street, what was once the business district for the city, is a surreal experience.  Gutted buidling after gutted building, it's like the Mississippi shed its skin at Cairo and carried its wealth further downstream. 

Recently, the Huffington Post mentioned Cairo in a column on ghost towns in America.  In many ways, Cairo epitomizes the disillusionment of the American dream.  

Just like New Orleans, Cairo is surrounded by levees built by the COE.

Unlike New Orleans, the levee system has served the city well for decades without failure.

The city was flooded during, "The Great Flood",  which occurred on New Year's Eve, 1927.  I can still remember folks talking about the danger of Cairo being wiped out by a flood when I was a kid but I never really took it seriously, much like the mindset I held about New Orleans pre-Katrina.

As of midnight tonight, May 1, 2010, a mandatory evacuation has been issued for Cairo due to the highest water levels of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers the city has seen since the '27 flood.  The last report I read put the level at 59.19 feet, about 3 inches off the highest recorded level, and slowly rising.  The COE is currently moving barges full of explosives to an area directly across the Mississippi River in Missouri called Birds Point.  They believe they may be able to save Cairo by breaching the levee at this point, however this act of desperation would result in about 200 square miles of farmland being destroyed.  It's a horrible decision to have to make and for the first time in a while, I actually feel sorry for the COE.

When the plan was first suggested, it prompted Missouri House Speaker, Steve Tilley (R), to fire off a snide and callous remark about the worth of the city compared to the farmland:

He later apologized but having grown up in that area I can assure you that comment came from a deep seated sense of racism.  This is the same area of the country that produced Rush Limbaugh.  I can also assure you his comments won't hurt his chances in the next election.

I tried to write a blog post expressing my thoughts on the matter but I'm really having a hard time processing it.  Having lived through Katrina, seeing the reality of an entire city nearly wiped out, it's a cruel irony to see the city where I was born now on the verge of destruction.

In the wake of Katrina I saw a lot of callous comments on MSM websites about how New Orleans would be better off being destroyed.  I'm seeing the same things again: "It would be better off being flooded."; "Cairo needs a face lift."; "Crops are worth more than that hellhole."; etc.

For me, comments like that pick at the scabs.  I can't help but remember all the horrible things people said about New Orleans after the storm.  Those things made me very angry. 

I don't want to be angry about this.

Instead of posting another rant, I asked my aunt, Nancy Joiner, who grew up in Cairo and now lives in Southeast Missouri, to write a commentary on what she's feeling at the moment.  I'm patenting this philosophy BTW, "Don't rant, just ask your Aunt".

Here it is:

There have been many events in my 59 years that I thought would change my life forever.   There were those that brought much joy like the birth of my brother, the youngest of five, who remains to this day my best friend.  There was my graduation from high school and leaving for school in the big city, falling in love, my wedding day, my sons, my grandsons.   And there were losses in my life that brought much pain.  Throughout all of it, there was always one constant.  One place that would always be home to me no matter where I was - Cairo. 
Now my heart is breaking because this special place is threatened.  My dreams of returning to Cairo upon retirement are falling apart.  My life could be changed forever again, but not in a good way. 
A choice must be made.  Will the plan that was put in place so many years ago to save this city be carried out?  Or will politics, bigotry and greed win out?  If they make the wrong decision, it’s because they don’t know Cairo and/or they have no love in their hearts for their fellow man. 
They didn’t spend their childhood in this beautiful, busy town of 6,000 good, hard-working people.  They didn’t look forward to Saturdays and walking downtown with the other neighborhood children,  past the beautiful homes and historic landmarks.  They never had to make a choice of which of the 4 drugstores on the way to the movie theater they would stop at for cherry phosphate or chocolate soda.    A stop by each of the dime stores afterwards, maybe a quick trip up the steps of the historic library to pick up a book or two, then home to spend the summer evening playing kick-the-can on the empty lots across the street.   This was a community where everybody knew you and who you belonged to.  Doors remained unlocked, children could safely play in any neighborhood in town.
The levees that protected us, served as our “Lover’s Lane” and provided us with a place for building bonfires and sledding, may now let the rivers take our town.  But it won’t be the levees that betrayed us.  It will be the politicians and the bankers that value farmland over the homes of over 2,000 residents, who are predominantly black and impoverished. 
I know things change.  Cairo has changed.  But it will always be home to those 6,000 people, their children and grandchildren.   Technology has allowed so many of those people to reconnect.  They all feel the same way.  Cairo is the bond they share, and losing it would not only devastate those that still reside there, but all of those that still hold a special place in their heart for this town.
I watched in horror, from miles away, during Katrina, as lives were lost and homes destroyed.  I kept saying “Somebody, do something!!”  And nobody did.   How could this happen?  I see more clearly now.  And it sickens me.
If they let this happen, not only are they destroying the homes and lives of over 2,000 people, but also our heritage.   A legacy that my own ancestor helped build when he settled there in 1813.  I read his journal and I marvel at the hardships he endured so that I could have that happy, safe childhood.  This could be one of the most painful events in my life.   It’s been very difficult already to find that some I thought were good people, are rooting for the farmland for the same ugly reasons.  The poor, black people are expendable.  And I say again, Somebody do something!! God help us.
 Thanks Aunt Nancy.  Let's wish for the best.



Anonymous said...

Breaching the levee across the river would not be an act of desperation--it's part of the project that was built after The Great Flood. We have Bonnet Carre and Morganza and Bohemia Spillways. They have this "fuse plug" levee that was always understood to be part of the plan to divert water if necessary. It may be necessary right now.



Anonymous said...

My high school English teacher came from a part of Kentucky near your old home.

I'm sorry to read about what is happening to your town. Your Aunt's story was very moving.

When you think about the redlining, intense wage discrepancies, and unfair hiring practices those black families faced, each of those owned homes is a real achievement. The white families did not cope with as much of that, but it has never been easy for working people in America.

Those homes are castles.

And the kind of community you describe, which did not require anyone to print up tee shirts to define membership, or to apply for grants to build it, is what keeps so many of us making regular visits back to the little towns we (or our parents) got the hell out of.

Cairo will get prayers and glasses raised to honor it here in our house. Thanks for the post.

Three foreign wars and the deep sleaze of the disaster profiteers (from the little disasters of personal health dramas up to the fraud in the "recovery" processes) is what has eaten up the money that might have repaired the infrastructure that is crumbling across the nation.

Leigh C. said...

There's been so much going on with me personally lately that I've only just had time to process the tornadoes hitting Tuscaloosa, where I went to a craft show on a yearly basis when I was glassworking, and now this. Just horrible. All of it. And, of course, it's all made more horrible by all these people saying the same damned thing we heard five years ago, the tired, nasty trope of "Why are people living there, anyhow?" It is HOME, dammit.

Thanks for this.

Anonymous said...

Really nice article. Well done.

Ms M said...

Moving piece you and your aunt have written. I relate, having been born in a town by the Missouri River and remembering the times the floods came. I hope Cairo is saved by the levee "diversion."

Editor B said...

For what it's worth — probably not much — Cairo, Illinois plays a key role in American Gods by Neil Gaiman. But I didn't really enjoy the book so I can't recommend it.

Here's another article about the situation:

Anonymous said...

I too was born in Cairo many moons ago at St Mary's Hospital; perhaps your family held me at one time. :) I was in search of history of the old building, when I came upon your blog.

History seems to pass the common folk by, I guess.

Thank You for Your Story,

Laurie said...

Such a sad commentary on what is happening in many small towns across America. I am looking for my mothers cousin who died at St. Mary's hospital and is buried in thistlewood cemetery, and I stumbled upon your story. Thank you for posting it. I, too, was shocked to my core that the poor and black individuals living in New Orleans were ignored in their time of most desperate need.