Not just a city in Egypt
June 12, 2010 8:31 PM   Subscribe

Cairo, Illinois is mostly abandoned. It was once a thriving city of 15,000, but the Mississippi barges don't stop there anymore, and racial turmoil, including a three-year boycott of white-owned businesses that refused to hire black workers, killed the town's economy. The Cairo Project, from Southern Illinois University, is a good overview of Cairo's history and its current situation. Can punk label Plan-it-X start a rebirth by moving to Cairo and opening a coffeeshop? If it helps, there's still good barbecue.
posted by escabeche (54 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
The "Cairo, Illinois" link made Avast! go off like a five-alarm fire.
posted by dunkadunc at 8:35 PM on June 12, 2010

(Plan-It-X Records is awesome, by the way. Anyone remember when Against Me! used to be cool and relevant?)
posted by dunkadunc at 8:37 PM on June 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

The second comment on the "Cairo, Illinois" link is someone claiming to be a resident. Could be true, for all I know, though I don't see much in the pictures to indicate the presence of Comcast around there. He did have a curious taste for Capitalization, but it could have been contrived.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 8:40 PM on June 12, 2010

I'm pretty sure Cairo was in American Gods at some point.
posted by edgeways at 8:40 PM on June 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

Those of us in the Detroit area are just thankful that the spotlight has turned, at least briefly, to another town!
posted by HuronBob at 8:44 PM on June 12, 2010

We should move MetaFilter there. A big old building in a town center, for $24,000? What a deal.
posted by Meatbomb at 8:51 PM on June 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Cairo. Too far south for any good, too far north to be south. Ole Jim passed it by.
posted by stbalbach at 8:52 PM on June 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm pretty sure Cairo was in American Gods at some point.

I believe so.

I also think Cairo is pronounced like the syrup, not the city in Egypt.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 9:01 PM on June 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

Anyone remember when Against Me! used to be cool and relevant?)
I miss those days.

Actually, screw relevancy, remember when they were at least good? They were definitely no longer relevant when New Wave came out, but that record is still a pretty solid pop album sandwiched between two terrible ones.

(to be on the record about it: hated Searching For A Former Clarity, and actually refuse to listen to White Crosses on advice from my brother that goes something like "don't. It will just make you sad and then listen to Crime! about six times in a row and we have people to see and errands to run and I need you to not be mopey for that.")
posted by The Esteemed Doctor Bunsen Honeydew at 9:02 PM on June 12, 2010 [3 favorites]

I'll drive through a handful of other towns with dead downtowns tomorrow when I go visit my father. (My personal favorite: Oxford, IN, 'Home of Dan Patch'.) Granted, those towns won't be on big rivers.

There was an great AskMe last year about a guy buying a big brick house in Richmond, IN and fixing it up, also. There's plenty of houses in various states of repair for less than $30,000 around here. My dad has one of them, he bought it a few years ago and his monthly mortgage is $145.

Me? I think Jessamyn has me talked into Vermont.

Anyway, Plan-it-X has put out some good records too. This isn't a totally unique move (and I doubt they claim otherwise), there were surprisingly active punk outposts in incredibly tiny IN-OH-IL towns when I was living here and doing that sort of thing. Chillicothe, Ohio and Chesterton, IN had good 'scenes'. And I met a girl from the MRR classifieds Union City, IN.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 9:05 PM on June 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

I wept when I heard New Wave for the first time. It was a betrayal.
posted by dunkadunc at 9:05 PM on June 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is one of those towns in Illinois that makes people from central Illinois explain to someone who may ask where you're from and you answer TOWN THAT IS NOT CHICAGO, ILLINOIS they say "Oh, Southern Illinois?" and you say "No, Central Illinois."
posted by wcfields at 9:10 PM on June 12, 2010 [4 favorites]

Cairo is a mean ole' town.
posted by felix betachat at 9:43 PM on June 12, 2010

I don't understand. It doesn't look like it is physically possible to get farther South in Illinois than Cairo.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 9:44 PM on June 12, 2010

Henry Townsend, who was known as one of the kings of St. Louis Blues - on piano - used to play a song about this town. It has been running through my head for almost fifty years. Here he is on guitar, singing: Cairo.
posted by kozad at 9:50 PM on June 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's pronounced kay-roh, not kah-ee-roh.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:52 PM on June 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

Some blatant self-promotion: I stopped in Cairo in November 2008, when I was making a cross-country move. I took a bunch of photos, which can be seen here.
posted by elmwood at 9:52 PM on June 12, 2010 [12 favorites]

"scrumptious meats." heh.
posted by phogirl at 9:58 PM on June 12, 2010

elmwood... those are great.... thanks!
posted by HuronBob at 10:11 PM on June 12, 2010

The very southern most bits of Southern Illinois has a long history of fucked upedness.

"Williamson County is often referred to as "Bloody Williamson" due to several outbreaks of violence that have few parallels in American history."
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 10:16 PM on June 12, 2010

And instead of simply hiring black employees, white business owners resolved themselves to shut down and move away. As a result, downtown Cairo simply died.

Sounds like it deserved to die.
posted by Afroblanco at 10:18 PM on June 12, 2010 [5 favorites]

American Gods: Yep, it was where the egyptian undertakers lived. Ever since that book I've wanted to drive through there. Thanks for the post, it looks like it's history it stranger and more tragic than I imagined.
posted by gofargogo at 10:21 PM on June 12, 2010

We should move MetaFilter there. A big old building in a town center, for $24,000? What a deal.
posted by Meatbomb

It would be a great Main Meetup Hall for The Benevolent & Protective Order of MeFites.
posted by Floydd at 10:32 PM on June 12, 2010

"We judged that three nights more would fetch us to Cairo, at the bottom of Illinois, where the Ohio River comes in, and that was what we was after. We would sell the raft and get on a steamboat and go way up the Ohio amongst the free States, and then be out of trouble." (Huck Finn, Chap XV)
posted by one_bean at 10:33 PM on June 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

Sounds like it deserved to die.

Personally I think it deserved to thrive after the racist losers went to drag some other town's rep. into the mud.
posted by mannequito at 10:34 PM on June 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

I wept when I heard New Wave for the first time. It was a betrayal.

I don't disagree, but then again, I guess I do. Against Me! was one of the first bands I ever saw live. Would have been 13 or 14 at the time. I've seen them well over a dozen times since. I can sing large parts of their early catalogue by heart. New Wave has only the faintest glimmer of why I loved Against Me! back in the day. But, by the time it came out, I was a different person than the guy who fell in love with that band, and just barely had enough distance to see it for what it was: a pretty good pop record produced by a band full of dudes, dudes that were once this amazing meaningful band, who had changed just as much as I had in as much time. New Wave is by no means a good Against Me! album. It's a fucking terrible Against Me! album. But it is a pretty good album if you think of it as an album made by these dudes who used to be in this other band, but went through some major creative and life changes, grew up a little, tried some new stuff; going on to the point where they really were no longer the same band anymore. They could, maybe should, have changed the name to reflect that this is not the band that they were when Axl Rose, or even Clarity came out, but why would they? The change was slow from their side of the creative divide. We, as consumers of a group's creative output only get updates into how they are changing as people when they release things, so these shifts can seem sudden to us. It's really heartbreaking when one of your favorite bands isn't making the music that you once loved them for, but it's something you have to forgive. Styles, influences, interests, they all change. People change. Imagine if you had to be the same person forever.
posted by The Esteemed Doctor Bunsen Honeydew at 10:42 PM on June 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm going to play the devil's advocate here and remind everyone that Tom Gabel now lives in fucking Los Angeles and therefore has no soul.
posted by daniel striped tiger at 10:45 PM on June 12, 2010

(Plan-It-X Records is awesome, by the way. Anyone remember when Against Me! used to be cool and relevant?)

posted by Pope Guilty at 10:57 PM on June 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

I saw Against Me! on some show last night. I thought they were Hot Topic spokesmen.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 11:26 PM on June 12, 2010

20 years ago, the summer I was 12, we drove through Cairo about once a month on the way to Cape Girardeau to visit my mother. It was not a happy time in my life and I remember that the dead grass and decaying city in the bright sun and oppressive summer heat was fascinating to me. It kind of looked like I felt and it was a comfort, if that makes any sense. It was a strange way to feel at 12. It was the first time I realized that something dying or dead and full of unhappiness can have a certain kind of beauty.
posted by cilantro at 12:05 AM on June 13, 2010 [7 favorites]

Johnston had invited friends to come and work at the coffee shop in exchange for free rent but got few takers. "A lot of people shook on it and then backed out," he explains. "A friend of mine basically told me, 'I want to live in a place that already has nice things,' as opposed to this plan of building nice things, which is what we're doing."

Business is slow. Rapattoni and Johnston open the store each morning at 10 and stand around at the counter, waiting for customers. Cars lazily circle the block, their passengers peering in the windows, trying to understand the purpose of the incongruously cheery purple storefront. "What are they doing?" wonders Judson Childs, Cairo's mayor. "I drive by, and it doesn't seem to be a thriving business."

It's interesting that they're moving there. I feel almost guilty for assessing their chances of success as practically non-existent. But I hugely admire their chutzpah, and possibly, if the apocalyptic zombie revolution comes soon, they will be the survivors.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 12:26 AM on June 13, 2010

Cairo is actually named for the city in Egypt, but is also horribly mispronounced (kay-roh). This is analogous to the massive number of mangled French place-names in St. Louis. Such as "Saint Louis," or my personal favourite, a road called "Gravois," pronounced "Graa-voyz."
posted by kaibutsu at 12:36 AM on June 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's not horribly mispronounced... it's a different city in a different country with a different language. There's a town a couple of hours away from Cairo in Tennessee called Paris. Should we refer to it as Pah-ree? I mean, they do have a 30 foot tall Eiffel Tower in one of the city parks...
Anyway, If the residents of Cairo, Illinois call it Kay-row, then that's the correct pronunciation. Just like Milan, Tennessee is My-lun. Feel free to visit either of these places and throw around KY-row and mih-LAN, it will no doubt amuse the locals to no end.
posted by cilantro at 12:56 AM on June 13, 2010 [3 favorites]

White Crosses is actually pretty great, if you ignore all that Against Me! ever was (and "I Was A Teenage Anarchist"). It's basically an Angels and Airwaves record, which is absurd and sort of amazing.

The cheap property, busted town, young folks meme is interesting. I hope they do well!
posted by wemayfreeze at 2:37 AM on June 13, 2010

Southern Illinoisan here (and SIU graduate. Go Dawgs!) It is sometimes said that SIU and south of that in Illinois are the "top of the south". And that's quite believable as you can see things change dramatically as you drive from St. Louis south through S. Illinois. Suddenly Baptists spring up everywhere (in contrast to the Catholic/Lutheran Germans that are omnipresent slightly north of the extreme Southern Illinois. The story I always heard about the extreme southmost part of the state (anything south of Springfield might be called "southern Illinois") was that it was analogous to the Nile Delta (as the Illinois and Ohio meet there, the farmland is very fertile, it's hotter than Hades, and some other reasons I'm forgetting at the moment). You'll find Lake of Egypt, Cairo, "Little Egypt", the SIU mascot is the Saluki, The Daily Egyptian newspaper, etc…

The story I always heard about Cairo is that at one point in the state's history it was supposed to be a city that not only rivaled, but exceeded Chicago. Alas, that was not to be. Now it's an insanely depressed town that would feel quite comfortable in Alabama than Illinois. Oh well, at least Illinois has the home of Superman nearby.

@kaibutsu: No, Gravois in St. Louis is not pronounced "Graa-voyz". It's pronounced "GRAV-oy".
posted by readyfreddy at 3:14 AM on June 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

Another Saluki here. I loved my years at Carbondale. The university is right next to the Shawnee National Forest. John Wayne Gacy lived in the town next door in the maximum security prison in Marion. I remember seeing Black Flag at the area's only gay bar (also the largest dance floor in town). And unlike the flatness of most of the state, the rivers had carved out bluffs and valleys, creating all kinds of places to climb with absolutely beautiful vistas. It was the farthest a kid could go from his Chicago roots and still get in-state tuition. Just over the border was Monkeys Eyebrow, Kentucky. And you had to travel north to get to Saint Louis. I had relatives back in Chicago who didn't believe me when I told them that Illinois extended farther south than Saint Louis. It was very unlike the sub-division I grew up in. Home of John Dewey, Buckminster Fuller, and while I was there, Richard Russo was teaching and working on his first book, Mohawk, which he'd read us chapters from, and which reminded me at the time a bit of Cairo, even though it took place in the eastern US. Southern Illinois is nothing like the rest of the state. When you're there, it's easy to forget you're in Illinois at all. Hell, the state legislature forgets it's part of Illinois all the time. Thanks for this. This isn't the Cairo I remember, it's certainly hit some hard times, but I do remember that landscape. And it's good to discover that Shemwell's is still around, fine purveyors of sliced—not chopped—Bar-b-que. His secret ingredient is his knife.
posted by Toekneesan at 5:14 AM on June 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

Don't forget to see the historic railway bridge!
posted by Vindaloo at 6:00 AM on June 13, 2010

Yep, I came here to say that Cairo was in American Gods, specifically the part with the ancient Egyptian undertaker gods.

It was also in the 1935 Nancy Drew book The Message in the Hollow Oak (which, interestingly enough, was updated in a rather slapdash fashion in 1972 to include mention of St. Louis' Gateway Arch). So that might give you some sense of when Cairo last had a significant place in the national imagination, other than as somewhere to die.
posted by limeonaire at 6:45 AM on June 13, 2010

If it's at the junction of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, you'd think that it would be in a pretty strategic location. Pittsburgh did OK at their fork in the river. Not enough train-tracks coming through?
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:22 AM on June 13, 2010

Saint Louis was and is the major rail hub. Cairo went to hell because the barge business left. Barges still travel past, they just no longer need to stop there.

Well that and the race thing.
posted by Toekneesan at 7:28 AM on June 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

the illinois river that connected barge traffic between chicago and st. louis (with the peoria whisky trust in between) would be a different FPP road trip
posted by Hammond Rye at 7:37 AM on June 13, 2010

Google's got Cairo on street view, so you can spend some idle hours seeing just how empty the place is.

I don't mean that as an easy dismissal - I live in Michigan and grew up in western Pennsylvania, I'm familiar with bleak post-industrial etc.-ness. It's the flat land and treelessness of Cairo, combined with the bright sunny weather the day Google drove through, heightens the sense of desolation compared to, say, Flint, MI or Youngstown, OH.

I wish the best to Plan-It X for wanting to revitalize the town, but if there's nothing there to give sufficient numbers of Cairo's population a reason to stay - industry, a local money-making specialty, or tourism - they're as much as rowing up a waterfall.
posted by ardgedee at 7:50 AM on June 13, 2010

Wow, this is fascinating; I'd never heard of Cairo before. The Oregon Law Review article [pdf] – the "a three-year boycott of white-owned businesses" link – in particular goes into depth about the race issues. Aside from such rampant insanity like closing the public swimming pool in 1964 rather than desegregate it, highlights include:

*A 1946 equal pay case "argued by Thurgood Marshall. Ms. Hattie Kendrick, one of the named plaintiffs, enjoys telling how during the hearing the judge and defense counsel continuously referred to Marshall as a "boy." Defense counsel explained to the court how a comparable case in Tennessee had been handled by a distinguished attorney who knew what he was doing, unlike the "boy" in this case. Defense counsel continued to wax eloquent about the brilliance of the lawyer in the other case. Marshall quietly stood up and thanked counsel for the compliments, then informed the court that he was the brilliant attorney who had handled the Tennessee case. The courtroom exploded with laughter and defense counsel was silent thereafter." [fn. 15]

*"There was also some evidence that [the police] contributed to the nightly acts of violence which rocked the community. The angle of the over forty bullets fired into St. Columba's church and rectory, the headquarters of the Front, located directly across from the police station, indicated that they had been fired from the cupola at the top of the police station," and that "[no] charges were ever filed as a result of this or any other incidents of gunfire in Cairo against blacks or civil rights workers." [p. 10/fn. 43]

Then there's the story of David Lansden, whose grandfather settled in Cairo in 1865 and started a law firm there: "On February 7, eight members of the NAACP, including their attorney, David Lansden, were arrested and charged with "conspiring to cause or permit children to be placed in such a situation that their lives and health were endangered in that they did feloniously force children to attend school." Id. This matter, together with charges arising out of the bombing incident, was referred to a grand jury; no true bills were returned. Id., Mar. 8,1973, at 6, col. 1. Thereafter, attorney Lansden was ostracized by the white community; he and his family were threatened, and rocks and garbage were thrown at his house. Id., June 7, 1973, at 6, col. 1. Lansden's neighbors erected a flashing neon sign with an arrow pointing to the Lansden home to ensure that these acts of terrorism were not misdirected." [fn. 16]

Just for emphasis: Lansden's neighbours put up a flashing neon fucking sign, complete with arrow pointing at his family home to make sure anyone wanting to firebomb it wouldn't get the wrong house. Jesus.

The whole article is amazing reading, though – it's long but well worth spending an hour or two on. Sad that things don't seem to have changed much since it was written back in 1982.

Also – linked by elmwood on the page with his (great) photos upthread – pictures from Cairo: Civil Rights era photos, 1967-1973 are brilliant, for anyone who missed them.
posted by Len at 8:41 AM on June 13, 2010 [5 favorites]

Cairo was a major Union base during the Civil War. From Harper's Weekly in 1861: Riverboats at Cairo, Illinois, The Union Army at Cairo Illinois, Cairo, Illinois, Camp Defiance, Cairo Illinois (scroll down to see the full magazine pages).
posted by kirkaracha at 8:45 AM on June 13, 2010

I also think Cairo is pronounced like the syrup, not the city in Egypt.
This was totally a shibboleth in any lit class that included Twain--we smart-ass grad students always tried to be the first to work it into a discussion with the professor, to show her that we knew.
posted by MrMoonPie at 11:20 AM on June 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

They should do what Detroit did and import a bunch of aspiring photographers looking for worn out buildings.
posted by chairface at 12:04 PM on June 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

ardgedee, thanks for mentioning Youngstown. If I ever need to quench my rust-belt cravings, that would be a better option than this lost world.
posted by StickyCarpet at 3:21 PM on June 13, 2010

I drove through Cairo several years ago, when I was moving back to Illinois after living in the South for several years and making job interview trips via car. I'd seen a number of places in the South that had decayed, and in particular there were some falling-down mansions in Memphis that were pretty striking, but no place quite like Cairo, in which the entire city seemed to have left and those few people on the street just hadn't quite caught up yet. "Millionaire's Row" was almost unbearably sad, as was the park at the very southern tip of Illinois--you'd think that something as geographically significant as the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers would have more of a monument marking it, but no.

I, too, had a fantasy of a bunch of people deciding to house their cult/social movement/lifestyle group/whatever there, not so much because it would be an ideal location for anything in particular but because it was the closest that I've ever seen to the near-total abandonment of any town that had more than 1,000 people at its height.
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:41 PM on June 13, 2010

> This is one of those towns in Illinois that makes people from central Illinois explain to someone who may ask where you're from and you answer TOWN THAT IS NOT CHICAGO, ILLINOIS they say "Oh, Southern Illinois?" and you say "No, Central Illinois."

no, you don't have that right. there's chicago, and there's downstate. if it's not in chicago, it's downstate. even galena is downstate. arguing that it's southern or central is pretty moot.
posted by lester's sock puppet at 7:57 PM on June 13, 2010

Cairo has also been the subject of an NPR story examining the rise of conversions to Judaism amongst the population.
posted by stannate at 6:37 PM on June 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Wow, stannate, how could I have missed that when making the post?
posted by escabeche at 7:29 PM on June 14, 2010

Thanks so much for posting this. I was in Carbondale over the weekend and decided to make the fifty mile journey South to Cairo one afternoon to visit Ace of Cups after reading the article you linked to. It's pretty incredible to find a place like that in Cairo, especially with all of the abandoned buildings in the neighborhood surrounding it. I was bummed to be missing a show by Kepi from the Groovie Ghoulies by just a few days.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 6:45 PM on June 29, 2010

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