Cairo: Part II
December 3, 2010 9:14 PM   Subscribe

Could punk rock save Cairo, IL? (Previously.) Maybe not. What about Reddit ?

A hundred years and some odd years ago, Cairo, Illinois was a thriving town on the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. So what happened? First, a group lynched Will "Froggie" James, a black man accused of murder ( has a set of prints, numbers 41 through 50, not for the faint of heart). Another lynching the next day was barely averted with the help of a police uniform and the local militia. 58 years later, Pfc. Robert L. Hunt Jr. was found hanged in his jail cell. The FBI elected not to investigate, despite obvious bruises and dubious arrest details. This and a deep-seated racial divide led to a boycott of white-owned businesses by the city's sizable black population. With the nation's lowering reliance on river transport, Cairo's economy went into a tailspin.

Nowadays, Cairo is pretty close to a ghost town. "There is still no industry here and many still don't have jobs... people are in a state of depression.". Enter Chris Clavin (a.k.a. Christ Johnston), co-founder of the staunchly DIY punk Plan-It-X Records: "Last summer, PLAN-IT-X packed up and left sunny, cultured, punk as hell Gainesville, FL. for the down on its luck river town of Cairo, IL... It's a place with a great history and a long history of bad luck. Most people haven't heard of it. We came here to get away from McStarMart and drunken college kids who don't really care about anything. We also came to do something to make Cairo a little better."

Things could have gone better. "The residents of Cairo [were] nonplussed by the newcomers, whose presence they view as voyeuristic -- and temporary." Tragedy struck - beloved co-founder Samantha Jane Dorsett died. Then the roof of The Ace of Cups, the coffee shop and bookstore started by Clavin and company, fell in (link is a particularly fascinating progress report on the Plan-It-X forums). Plan-It-X has since moved home to Bloomington, IN; The Ace of Cups is now for sale.

A group of Redditers calling themselves Project Cairo might just take up that offer.
posted by wayland (27 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Full disclosure: I'm vaguely involved in the Plan-it-X scene and have a passing acquaintance with Chris Clavin. Still, my involvement with Cairo never went further than observation.
posted by wayland at 9:14 PM on December 3, 2010

First they create a PAC, and now they want to buy a town? Is there nothing reddit cannot do?
posted by reenum at 9:24 PM on December 3, 2010

Ask Reddit about Cairo where the subreddit was born. Pretty good thread for reddit while I was following it. Minimal made up bullshit and not much "just tellin it like it is" racism.

Proposal for RedditTown USA
posted by Ad hominem at 9:27 PM on December 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

I only know Cairo, Illinois, as the town Jim and Huck were aiming for in Huckleberry Finn, as it was supposedly somehow safe for Jim (I never really understood that part all that well. Why was Cairo safe for Jim? By the lynchings mentioned in the post above, doesn't seem too safe.) They never got there though (I think they passed it in the night or something.)
posted by smcameron at 9:29 PM on December 3, 2010

Yeah, Jim and Huck passed it by night. It was safe for them because all of Illinois was nominally in the North, so slavery was not recognized there. Cairo, IL is the southernmost town in Illinois.
posted by wayland at 9:32 PM on December 3, 2010

Basically it seems like Reddit wants to gentrify Cairo, while taking the privileged stance that they are 'rescuing' it.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 10:02 PM on December 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

So, why not do something to encourage some return to river transport? It's bound to happen sooner or later. Can't beat the efficiency. The Rhine, in Europe, is still heavily trafficked with cargo.
posted by Goofyy at 10:03 PM on December 3, 2010

Although now I see that the project wiki lists gentrification as one of the 'risks,' so at least they are aware of it. Color me skeptical, I guess (and I'm a redditor, even!).
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 10:04 PM on December 3, 2010

A couple months back I drove through Cairo. I found it fascinating and depressing. Over by the river there are buildings crumbling and amongst the broken windows, doors, and broken bricks are a couple bars. Ones I would never set foot into, and on streets I wouldn't get out of the car for. And the nice part of town feels safer but still creepy. Wiki says 60% of the schoolchildren are living below the poverty line. If anybody wants to buy something there, great, cos at least somebody might be getting money to get the hell out.
posted by l2p at 10:15 PM on December 3, 2010

So, why not do something to encourage some return to river transport?

Commercial traffic on the Ohio River has increased over the years with the growth of heavy industry in the tri-state area. In the first year that tonnage records were kept by the Corps (1917), the Ohio River carried about 5 million tons of cargo. Now, commerce is approaching 150 million tons a year. The increase in traffic over the years has been met by improvements and modernization of the navigation facilities.

Modern barge traffic needs much less in the way of shore facilities. In any case, consider that Cairo's population peaked at just 20,000 -- a century ago.

Sadly, there are many such towns across the agricultural zones of the US that are emptying out as farming (and all associated activities) just doesn't need as many people to do it anymore. A combine can do the harvesting work of 20 men.

As far as river towns worth saving, I don't want to pick favorites per se, but many would pick Madison, Indiana^.
posted by dhartung at 10:16 PM on December 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

I was in Carbondale for a long weekend right after I saw that original Ace of Cups MeFi post and was intrigued enough to drive the 50 miles further South to spend an afternoon there. Ace of Cups was pretty damn inspiring, so I'm saddened to see the bad luck they've had. To give you an idea of where Ace of Cups is, just a few hundred yards away are these buildings. I hope somebody can make something work with that space, although I can't even imagine what it will take to turn that area around.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 10:18 PM on December 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's a fine line. Buying up empty property is probably good,I wouldn't be worried about gentrification in a town where they are auctioning off houses for 600$. Even if RedditTown is a bit grandiose, Somehow I doubt reddit is going to be able to turn this into the Williamsburg of IL.

After reading the plan-it-x thread you gotta admire their can do attitude. Reddit seems to be stuck on forming some sort of advisory committee.

That thread got me interested in Braddock PA. I've decided to buy Braddock PA and declare it HominemVille
posted by Ad hominem at 10:19 PM on December 3, 2010

So, why not do something to encourage some return to river transport? It's bound to happen sooner or later. Can't beat the efficiency. The Rhine, in Europe, is still heavily trafficked with cargo.

I grew up in a Mississippi River town. There's still plenty of river traffic. Tons of grain move up and down it every year. You can head down to the observation platform at the Lock and Dam and there's a good chance you'll see a barge lock through within an hour. It just doesn't bring a damn bit of money to any of the towns along the river. They don't dock at every town on the river. They don't get off the boat and spend any money. And even if they did, there aren't a whole lot of people on a barge crew.

Cairo is just a fucked up place. There's no high ground there. It's surrounded by levees on all sides, which after living through 1993 would make me very reluctant to spend a dime on any property there. There's no industry. There's no tax base to support a minimum of infrastructure that a business would like to see to create jobs there. There's a long history of corruption in Cairo. And nobody is going to move to Cairo to get a job once they see what a shithole it is.

I saw the Reddit thread, and it looked to me like a bunch of 23 year old libertarians that saw a cheap paradise ripe for their experimentation. They're welcome to try it, but I don't know where the fuck any of them are going to find the means to pay for rent, a mortgage, or food there, unless they all have trust funds.
posted by TrialByMedia at 10:26 PM on December 3, 2010 [6 favorites]

I kind of wanted to address gentrification but I couldn't see how to do it while keeping a neutral point of view, since no one seems to have talked much about it on reddit. It was brought up on the plan-it-x boards, though. I don't think it's a going to happen for a couple of reasons.

Gentrification seems to happen mostly in poor areas in or around large cities -- essentially, more affluent people move there because it's a cheap place to live, no longer threatening because of the large numbers of "bohemian"/"artsy" people, and, most of all, close to jobs. Cairo is virtually in the middle of nowhere. People are not going to move there to commute to their big-city jobs.

Also, Cairo at it's biggest had 20,000 people. Most of the buildings from then seem to be still there. I don't think a couple hundred redditors are going to put a big strain on the housing market, and even if they do, I get the impression that most cairo citizens own their homes rather than pay rent. People are not going to be evicted for the richer folks to move in.

That being said, they could definitely use some discussion about race and class privilege. "Let's turn a real place where people live into Reddittown!" is more than a little insulting.
posted by wayland at 10:29 PM on December 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

This post says all that stuff I said in the post above better than I can.
posted by wayland at 10:32 PM on December 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Closeness tom jobs is key. I don't know much about Cairo but the reason gentrification is such a big issue in NYC is because there are so many renters. Renters can get pushed out a market much easier than home owners, who are essentially locked in.
posted by Ad hominem at 10:41 PM on December 3, 2010

Cairo Blues
posted by entropicamericana at 10:47 PM on December 3, 2010

Presumably they're going to join forces with John Fetterman in sister city Braddock. PA?
posted by kenko at 10:59 PM on December 3, 2010

Hold tight citizens, Levi's got Braddock.
posted by stratastar at 11:16 PM on December 3, 2010

I live about 20 miles west of Cairo and have been there hundreds of times. I find the place fascinating and so do my grandchildren 4 and 7.

In the 90s Cairo had a bit of a revival but that's been all over for a while and the town is plagued with arson of abandoned buildings.

However, there is a cobblestoned boulevard with a nice mix of elderly high end houses including some Civil War era mansions.

I've been watching Cairo decline for 20 yrs. A good bit of it in the former Smith @ Groves. Thanks, Duke.
posted by wrapper at 12:07 AM on December 4, 2010

I know Cairo only thanks to American Gods, and if someone opened a funeral home there called Jacquel and Ibis, I'd pay a premium plus shipping to have my corpse dealt with there.

Probably not enough people would do that to make it a work as a revitalization scheme.

And, honestly, I'm dubious about the value of revitalization anyway. Towns and whatnot thrive or fail as a result of semi-random, or at least chaotic in the mathematical sense, forces, I'm not at all sure that those forces can be successfully subverted, and if they are why save small town A instead of small town B? And there are some pretty strong ecological reasons to support larger cities and not to support either small towns or suburban sprawl.

Perhaps it would be better to institute a program to help the residents of Cairo and other small towns find jobs elsewhere and pay for relocation costs?
posted by sotonohito at 5:29 AM on December 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

> "I saw the Reddit thread, and it looked to me like a bunch of 23 year old libertarians that saw a cheap paradise ripe for their experimentation. They're welcome to try it, but I don't know where the fuck any of them are going to find the means to pay for rent, a mortgage, or food there, unless they all have trust funds."

Preface: I'm a 37yr old Redditer.. and definitely don't have a trust fund.

I'm excited/intrigued by the Reddit "Project Cairo" idea. I don't think it has anything to do with gentrification or trying to play superhero "saving the town". It has to do with the spirit of fixing/rebuilding/believing in the viability of the heart of America.

I don't think Reddit has any delusions about this being easy or like flipping a light switch on. If you look at the /r/projectcairo homepage, you'll see posts covering everything from historical reports to pollution considerations to permaculture. (not to imply we are experts in any of those things--- but that we understand it will take a committed and multi-pronged approach to rehabilitate Cairo into a thriving small town). We also understand we have to start small (maybe 5 to 10 people as a "homestead" and get a good foundation before expanding)

We might fail. We might invest a bunch into it and be unexpectedly flooded out. There could be all kinds of "what ifs".... but fuck it... we're gonna try.
posted by jmnugent at 9:55 AM on December 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

"So, why not do something to encourage some return to river transport? "

There's plenty of river transport on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. There's got to be something to ship to or from Cairo for it to benefit Cairo. There just isn't anything THERE right now.

It's a fascinating piece of land (so named, I believe, because the alluvial nature of the area and its rich soils were thought similar to Cairo, Egypt) and it's surrounded by state and national parks as well as the confluence of two enormous rivers; its future might be more in ecotourism. It's not far from SIU-Carbondale; a wetlands (and other ecosystem) restoration program housed at the university could be a piece of that puzzle. I don't know how one would start such a large-scale project with any hope of success, but that might be the direction I'd go.

And remember kids, it's KAY-ro.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:36 AM on December 4, 2010

they could definitely use some discussion about race and class privilege

Sorry, what exactly is the inferred race and class of a group of Internet users who have $600 to spend in a realty auction?
posted by zvs at 12:17 PM on December 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Go there, set up a massive indoor pot growing operation.
Pay off all local law enforcement(if any).
Bring in enough hipster kids to get yourself voted mayor..
posted by highgene at 6:59 PM on December 4, 2010

Is it KAY-ro, Eyebrows, or is it more like CARE-oh? That's how my dad says it, and he's from Ridgway, IL, about 90 miles northeast of Cairo on the Ohio Rivier.
posted by ocherdraco at 7:14 AM on December 8, 2010

I think it's just a difference in where you bite off your A sounds, as non-standard As are typical for the region ... however, my (non-locally-native) husband claims it sounds like "CARE-oh" when I say it but I still think it sounds like "KAY-ro" when I say it ... the key point remains that it ain't KAI-rho!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:49 AM on December 8, 2010

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