THEBES TO CAIRO
Our route took us down Illinois Highway 3 to the interchange at I-57. Tom and I split up the last 10K on foot, landing us at Fort Defiance—the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. As we ran, we left the fields and first entered an industrial area, running under the iconic levee underpass with the name CAIRO emblazoned on its side.
We made the exchange at the Cairo Food Mart, just a few blocks into town. The signs on the van gave me away as an outsider, and I got a few looks from those driving up, but everyone was friendly enough. Tom ran in and I set out, crossing the street to access the partial sidewalk there, trying to slow my pace in this more urbanized landscape. Cairo was once a bustling place, a fancy city even, from all accounts, and it has experienced a hard hit—or several rather—over the years. Along my route toward Fort Defiance at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, I saw many vacant lots, buildings bombed out, crumbling, vestiges of the past like the GEM theatre still gleaming down 8th street… But I also saw Shemwell’s Bar-B-Q still open for business, and the Nu Diner with customers walking in for lunch. The Spirit House Liquor Store was doing some business and seemed to have a gathering of folks just round back sitting in lawn chairs, shooting the breeze. Just running into town, those three miles over some 25 minutes, I knew the story of Cairo was much deeper than saying it has just become a ghost town. There are people still moving about, making their way, and we were about to learn more about it.
Now the days are getting hotter, and everyday when I run that last leg into town, I feel sandwiched between the heat of the sun and the steam off the pavement. I was happy to towel off and hop into the air conditioned van for a twenty minute drive up to Huckleberry’s in nearby Mounds, Illinois where we would meet our host Alda Ingram and another voice of Cairo, Mr. Andy Clarke. Andy owns Huckleberry’s, a local lunch spot which also houses his mini storage and real estate businesses on the same premises. If not yet apparent, Andy is something of a businessman and entrepreneur, getting started at the young age of 21
when he bought a men’s clothing store in Cairo. Born and raised in town, he was one of the white boys playing football at the predominately black high school on an integrated team, and tells us he was really unawares of the race issues in town until the riots broke out in the late 60s and early 70s. He didn’t shy away from the black community then, and says he is still connected with them now. Andy got involved in local government, sitting on the city council amongst other roles, and his testimony was instrumental in opening up voting rights for blacks in Cairo in the 80s—when it seems the Civil Rights Movement had been delayed in touching ground there. Through his real estate business, Andy has tabs on the housing stock in Cairo and informed us that every property is currently sold! This is a good sign, he thinks, and shows some reinvestment in the community, even if the exterior seems slow to change. He’s a realist, but an optimistic realist, and one with a lot of energy to go out and get things done.
We ate our lunch of BBQ and wings, and shared the time with not only Andy, but also Alda and her husband Bob. Alda was born in Cairo, raised her family in Cairo, leaving later in life to follow a job to a slightly larger city. Several years ago, though, she returned, and she and Bob bought a small home for nearly nothing and fixed it up. She drove us along her street and the several blocks surrounding it to see the diversity of development. That is, oftentimes you imagine one part of a town to be all fixed up and another part of a town to be in disrepair, but in Cairo, it’s more like one house looks cared for, the one next to it is struggling, the one next to that is completely gutted, and then it cycles back again. The homes are often majestic in stature—it’s clear this was once a town with great ambition. Alda knows everyone on her block, and a little of their story. She just hopes the lawns can all stay mowed at this point, mentioning that the former mayor used to volunteer to mow lawns around the city. The new mayor has a fulll time job, though, so he can’t offer that service and has to encourage the property owners to take care of it themselves. Alda would love to see a “Main Street” develop in town, perhaps along Washington Avenue leading to the historic mansion Magnolia Manor. A bit tongue-in-cheek, she wondered at charging all these people coming into town to take pictures or do documentaries of the gutted out buildings—“disaster tourists,” if you will—in order to fund some positive redevelopment of the Cairo community.
Alda also brought us over to meet Trish Smith, who also grew up in Cairo, and whose mother and grandmother also lived here. According to Trish, she’s always been blessed to live within 5 minutes of her work, and it’s this small town familiarity of Cairo that keeps her here. Trish is twice widowed and has spent a lot of time recreating on the river with both husbands. They would access the river at 8th Street and go down to the point and out to sandbars to spend a day drinking and having a good time. Her second husband was “born on the Mississippi”—his name is Charles Smith and he grew up on a houseboat. They would often take off with camping gear in a boat and spend the weekend out on the river, swimming and waterskiing. Trish is saddened by the demise of Cairo over the last 50 years—for myriad reasons, she says, and is involved in the service activities of St. Patrick’s Church. They used to do a soup kitchen there but apparently there were too many brawls, so now they offer take out meals.
There were many people we didn’t meet in Cairo, amongst them the current Mayor, the former Mayor, and truly anyone from the African American community. From what we understood, people were more than wary, if you will, of another white couple coming in to potentially ask questions about the deterioration of this town. While that wasn’t our purpose, one can only insist so much when others have been bruised and wounded so many times. We respect that and let it be. We do hope to find out more about the rest of the people living and making their way in Cairo at some point, as their story continues as does ours.
To close out our night, Alda brought us over to meet her former son-in-law Gary. He’s spent his entire life on the river, working his way from deck hand to pilot to now Senior Port Captain. He’s responsible for responding to vessels accidents on the Mississippi River, and has had some close calls in his time. He’s also an advocate for Cairo, having been born and raised here, working hard to bring the much talked about river port to this confluence city. Over his years on the river, he’s roamed the Mississippi all the way up to the Saint Paul Harbor, and feels the Corps of Engineers is currently poorly funded, needing more and newer dredges for the waterway. According to Gary, the dredged sand is just spread over islands and when the river floods, the sand just washes back into river and fills the channel again. As Gary tells it, he’s at work on the river or involved with the river almost every hour of the day—he lives and breathes the Mississippi, and Cairo, and the South. He is a creature of place and habitat and is one more voice connecting us along the way.
We left Gary and Alda and headed back to our Quality Inn, with much thanks to Alda’s generosity. A good night to get some rest before the short run but the big parade through Kentucky to come. Stay tuned.