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Cairo, Illinois: America's most depressing city

Dan

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The following photos were taken in November 2008. I'll let them speak for themselves and for the city.

There's several other threads on Cyburbia regarding Cairo. The most notable:


I'll repeat what I wrote in an earlier thread: to Cyburbians outside of the United States, please understand that Cairo is NOT a typical American small town. We're fascinated with it because while many small towns in the United States have struggled in recent decades, no place has fallen as hard as Cairo, and the backstory is so fascinating and tragic. Americans are proud, but we're also very transparent; like a skateboarder proudly showing off his scars to his buddies, we tend not to hide our scrapes, bruises, scabs and infections. Our achievements as a nation, as well as the things we are ashamed of, are on public display for all to see.

That being said, "Welcome to Cairo: Gateway to the South."


1950s-style billboard. Long gone from the rest of the country, there were a few of them still around Cairo.


8th Street east of Sycamore Avenue, looking east towards downtown Cairo.


Historic Downtown Cairo. 8th Street streetscape.


8th Street, downtown.


Gem Theater, 8th Street, downtown.


8th Street, downtown.


Commercial Avenue, downtown. Cairo's traditional main street.


View from Commercial Avenue towards 7th Street.


More downtown.


Looking towards Commercial Avenue.


Commercial Avenue.


Commercial Avenue.


Commercial Avenue.


Commercial Avenue.


Commercial Avenue.


Commercial Avenue.


Commercial Avenue.


My dogs exploring downtown Cairo.


Commercial Avenue near 10th Street.


Commercial Avenue near 10th Street.


Abandoned furniture store on Commercial Avenue.


Commercial Avenue.


Housing project next to the Ohio River.


Alley east of Commercial Avenue.


Railroad Street.


Ohio River.


US 51; the current functional main street of Cairo. Not much is left there, either.


US 51.


US 51; abandoned hardware store.


US 51: Washington Avenue. The wide sidewalks spoke of better times.


US 51: Washington Avenue.


US 51: Washington Avenue. Ghost sign.


US 51: Washington Avenue.


US 51: Washington Avenue. Shemwell's BBQ.


US 51: Washington Avenue. National Guard Armory.


Port of Cairo, Sycamore Street.


Fire station, Jefferson Avenue.




1970s-ers gas guzzlers were a common sight in Cairo.


Unusual two-flat.


Lone shotgun shack.


Shotgun shacks.


Shotgun shacks.


Old street sign.


More decay.


More decay.


More decay.


Lone house on tbe north end of Commercial Avenue.


Commercial blocks at the far north end of Commercial Avenue, about two miles north of downtown.


One of the few commercial enterprises in town: barbecue grill manufacturing. Far north end of Commercial Avenue, about two miles north of downtown.


Cairo is filled with solid, imposing church buildings. This is an AME church from the turn of the last century; it impressed me considering the poverty and discrimination faced by the African-American community of the day.


Yes, Cairo has a good neighborhood.

West Side: house near Washington Avenue


Washington Avenue, Cairo's historic Millionaire's Row


West Side: house near Washington Avenue


West Side: house near Washington Avenue


Washington Avenue, Cairo's historic Millionaire's Row


Washington Avenue, Cairo's historic Millionaire's Row


Magnolia Manor. Washington Avenue, Cairo's historic Millionaire's Row


Washington Avenue, Cairo's historic Millionaire's Row


Washington Avenue, Cairo's historic Millionaire's Row


Southern end of Washington Avenue, Cairo's historic Millionaire's Row


US 51 tunnel under the levee that surrounds Cairo; the way out of town.
 

mike gurnee

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I would like to live/work there a couple of years to better understand the situation: and to help turn it around.
 

The One

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WOW!

I hope there is still someplace left like this for me to retire to in the distant future......:-| There will always be Detroit;)

Who am I kidding, my retirement party will be a co-worker discovering my lifeless body slumped over my desk8-!

I just did a quick check of realtor.com to see how much some of those cooler looking houses might be selling for......and got nothing.....not even a trailer for sale.....what gives? Would the homes be listed under another place name?

They need to put two huge toll arms across both rivers and require $1,000 per boat passing:p
 

boilerplater

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This thread needs an Uncle Tupelo soundtrack and some Ken Burns-style zoomouts. Fascinating. I imagine they won't be able to support basic gov't services much longer. That will be the nail in the coffin. Makes you wonder about the sense memory of a place. That is, can a place evoke so many bad memories that people feel compelled to leave?
 

rcgplanner

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I have driven past Cairo on I-57 many times. For a community at the intersection of 3 states and 2 major rivers, there is very little from the Interstate that would alert you that any services are available. The fact is there are no services available you either fuel up in Mt. Vernon, 30 miles north on I-57 or you wait until the terminus of I-57 in near Charleston, MO.

Cario is continuing it's slow march to death, or at least nothing more than a wide spot in the road. Alexander County, the home of Cario, has a 27% poverty rate. The County just had most of their sheriff vehicles repossesed and they only have 30k in the general fund.

Cario has a fascinating history and is an interesting anamoly in IL. That part of the state feels more like the South than the rest of the state. I remember leaving Indianapolis in a driving snow and getting to far southern IL where leaves were still on some of the trees, even in early December. Some of the architecture looks like it came from Gone With The Wind. I am not sure what will solve the ills of Cario, but it is a sad sad story.
 

boilerplater

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Yeah, I'd say there are a few real estate bargains there: http://www.trulia.com/IL/Cairo/#

Just pipe Zoloft into the water supply and it would be tolerable.

Wasn't there a song mentioning Cairo in Disney's Huckleberry Finn? Or maybe I'm thinking of Song of the South?
 

mgk920

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Fascinating. I imagine they won't be able to support basic gov't services much longer. That will be the nail in the coffin.
I was musing the exact same thoughts in the 'Worth the Stop?' thread just a couple of days ago:
Could there be a push forthcoming to 'rationalize' some of the local-level government in that area, such as dissolving cities/villages, (force?) merging counties and school and other special-use districts, etc?

Mike
:(

Mike
 

DetroitPlanner

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Most depressing? Maybe Detroit. Check out this "neighborhood" that I randomly found on Bing. Zoom in to the corner of Ferry and Elmwood and note the fire damanged house among the vacant lots.
Most depressing thing about Detroit? The Lions! Actually you have stumbled into a very desolate part of the near east side. However, this is within walking distance of Colleges, Universities, World Class art facilities, and the Eastern Market. Go south a bit and you will be in for a huge shocker. There are three enormous Catholic churches withing a few blocks of each other. Not much is left of that area, much of it was cleared long ago for urban renewal and thats what killed what was left.
 

The One

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Ok......

Yeah, I'd say there are a few real estate bargains there: http://www.trulia.com/IL/Cairo/#

Just pipe Zoloft into the water supply and it would be tolerable.

Wasn't there a song mentioning Cairo in Disney's Huckleberry Finn? Or maybe I'm thinking of Song of the South?
I was really looking for more than just one example of house prices in Cairo......this is the only one found using your link:

http://www.trulia.com/property/1065120202-2615-Elm-St-Cairo-IL-62914

Not bad 149k for 4bd 4500sf place.....
 

boilerplater

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Sorry. I guess the page timed out. Do a search for Cairo on it. Then again, you've probably already done that.
 

jmello

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So what, I'd buy the adjacent lots and build an 8' wall surrounding it(+$50,000)....and have my own little estate......;)
Where will you work, shop and find entertainment? Are there any healthy cities within commuting distance?
 

JNA

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Where will you work, shop and find entertainment? Are there any healthy cities within commuting distance?
Here are a few possibilities ?
Carbondale, Illinois
Paducah, Kentucky
Cape Girardeau, Missouri
 

Rygor

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Here are a few possibilities ?
Carbondale, Illinois
Paducah, Kentucky
Cape Girardeau, Missouri
Carbondale is about 50 miles. Paducah and Cape Girardeau are about 35 miles. So basically you'd have to drive 35-45 minutes at least to do anything.
 

Dan

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Where will you work, shop and find entertainment? Are there any healthy cities within commuting distance?
Another thing: in several essays I've read about Cairo, it's written that the people living there are just not nice people. It's a city of gruff, non-nonsense river rats.
 

pete-rock

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Another thing: in several essays I've read about Cairo, it's written that the people living there are just not nice people. It's a city of gruff, non-nonsense river rats.
My dad is a minister, and one of his assistant pastors at his first church was a not-so-nice man from Cairo. He was an bitter older man -- I attributed it to some really bad life experiences growing up there as an African-American. Whatever the case, my dad had to let him go because of his bitterness.
 

stroskey

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Another thing: in several essays I've read about Cairo, it's written that the people living there are just not nice people. It's a city of gruff, non-nonsense river rats.
Could you link any of those. Since reading this thread I am really interested in this town but I haven't found out a whole lot on the recent state of things, internet searches turn up mostly historical items.
 

Dan

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HEADLINE: National Guard armory to relocate, upgrade
The armory in Cairo is a gorgeous building, and I can't see any kind of reuse opportunities. Looks like that building will rot away over the next few decades as well as the rest of downtown Cairo.
 

Gatrgal93

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Very sad ...

I'm from Illinois - north central Illinois, though - and while I haven't specifically investigated it, I think there are probably other small towns in Illinois that may be on their way to suffering this type of fate.

There just isn't that much to do in small towns in Illinois, and frankly, the employment opportunities are not great, either. The towns I lived in during my childhood were dominated by farming, factories and mills, and over time as production and labor moved overseas, as the rivers and canals lost their importance in the movement of goods, and as the nation has become increasingly enmeshed in the global marketplace, the economies have spiralled downward if these small towns didn't figure out how to re-invent themselves.

Additionally, places like Cairo breed a VERY small-town mentality, such that you either grow up itching to "escape" or you grow up and fear leaving - the "outside" world just looks and seems too scary. I personally grew up itching to leave, fueled by "modern" parents who valued and obtained college educations while I was growing up. Also, my mom, being from another country, was good about taking my brother and I to Chicago and places up in the Northeast so we could learn more about the world in which we lived. None of this characterized the people I spent my early childhood around.

Florida became my home state at the age of 11, and I've never been tempted to go back. I have some nice memories of my early childhood - winters sledding, throwing snowballs, and "real" fall, where the trees change colors, and the amazing feeling of spring, with the snow melting and things turning green again, flowers blooming, return of the birds ...

But beyond that which nature offered, there just wasn't much to do unless we drove up to Chicago, or at minimum, places like Peoria.

In any case - has the population largely left Cairo? The place looks deserted in the pics ... I almost thought I was looking at one of those old westerns with the deserted Main Street. All that was missing was the tumbleweed ... 8-!
 

The One

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Hmmm.....

Hollywood should pick up the entire town at fire sale and turn it into a lot for movies.:not: Or the military could buy the town and use it for urban warfare exercises, including water landings:not: Maybe with NFIP $$ the whole place could be turned into a wildlife refuge after dozing it with a D-11.:not: It could be the first city comprised of entirely homeless families in the USA?:not: The entire community could be purchased by Disney Corp. and redeveloped into a circa 1858-1899 amusement park, complete with water attractions and rides and the local population could be put on the payroll to act in the time period, much like Williamsburg.:not: The city could be marketed to refugees from the middle east as a place to live in peace, not pieces.:not:

Come on people help me out here:D
 

Gatrgal93

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Great ideas!

Great ideas TO. I like the movie set idea, although the idea of turning the town into a period restoration, acted out live by the residents seems pretty fitting to me. I'm betting the old timers there are living in the past anyway. ;)
 

Dan

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Here's one nice, relatively intact block in town away from Washington Avenue.
 

RosemaryT

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The other side to Cairo

I've written a book on Sears Homes (five, actually) and I've done a lot of research in and around Cairo. Did you know that Sears had a massive mill in Cairo in the early 1900s, and *all* of their pre-cut kit homes came from Cairo?

It's an amazing little town and went from population of 13,000 (1960s) to under 3,000 people today.

The downtown is a GHOST TOWN and it's just like something out of an old Twilight Zone. Really, really spooky - and I love it.

In those downtown stores, there were (in 2005) still posters hanging up from the 1960s. It really is like everyone left in a hurry and didn't bother to clean up and clean out.

More photos: http://www.searshomes.org/index.php/2010/08/02/sears-modern-homes-and-the-mill-in-cairo-illinois/
 

Rygor

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That is an interesting article, Rosemary. So much for the claim that they didn't carry any "weatherworn" stock after that flood!

If anyone else is interested in the whole history of Sears/Sears homes there is a great website all about it here: http://www.searsarchives.com/index.htm
 

TexanOkie

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[OT]Can you still purchase those Sears homes, or the plans for them, from anywhere?

I know you can purchase Katrina Cottage designs and materials bundles from Lowes, but then you're much more limited as to architectural design (at least at this point in time).[/OT]
 

jsk1983

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[OT]Can you still purchase those Sears homes, or the plans for them, from anywhere?

I know you can purchase Katrina Cottage designs and materials bundles from Lowes, but then you're much more limited as to architectural design (at least at this point in time).[/OT]

It's not hard to find books with Sears homes or the like in them that will give the floor plan but I'd assume the actual patterns are much harder to find.
 

RosemaryT

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Sears Homes

There's a lot of interest in the topic of Sears Homes - and for good reason. It's such a big part of Americana and America's history on so many levels. A disproportionate number of immigrants bought and built these kit homes, which came in 30,000-piece kits. Sears promised a man of average abilities could have these homes assembled in 90 days.

Not to be immodest but...

I've written five books and dozens of articles on Sears Homes. It's a fun topic and the real pity here is that Cairo - the repository of all this amazing interesting on Sears Homes - is a big mess.

They've already town down *many* Sears Homes, and the 30+ Sears Homes that remain are in fairly crummy condition. It's always a shame to see these kit homes torn down, but in Cairo, it's doubly tragic as these homes should be developed as a tourist attraction. Problem is, the rest of the town is in shambles.

This (below) is a happy Sears Home in Shenandoah, Virginia.





Rose Thornton
www.searshomes.org
 

btrage

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Cities have come and gone for millenium........what makes this one so special??

I don't find it sad. And I can't imagine the race riots were the final nail in the coffin.
 

RosemaryT

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Sears Homes

Gosh, my posts keep disappearing here. Actually, that's not true. I post and then it says "will appear after moderation" and it does not appear. :(

To answer some questions, Sears sold these kit homes from 1908-1940. They came via boxcar, in 12000 pieces. They kit included a 90-page instruction book. Sears promised that a "man of average abilities" could have the house ready to move into within 90 days.

There are 70,000 kit homes in 48 states. Unfortunately, Sears destroyed all sales records sometime in the 1940s during a corporate house cleaning. The only way to find the houses today is literally one by one.

Sears offered these homes in 370 designs, and I have memorized each of those 370 designs. My life's work is driving around and identifying these homes. It's a lot of fun but pretty time consuming.

And that's how I found Cairo, Illinois. It was the home of the Sears Mill, and the precut kit homes were shipped from that mill.

Here's hoping this post makes it through the moderation gauntlet and appears!!! :)

Rose Thornton
author, The Houses That Sears Built
 

Dan

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Gosh, my posts keep disappearing here. Actually, that's not true. I post and then it says "will appear after moderation" and it does not appear. :(
Moderator note:

URLs with less than five posts to your name. It's a spam prevention feature. I'll fix that for you. :)
 

Rygor

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Gosh, my posts keep disappearing here. Actually, that's not true. I post and then it says "will appear after moderation" and it does not appear. :(

To answer some questions, Sears sold these kit homes from 1908-1940. They came via boxcar, in 12000 pieces. They kit included a 90-page instruction book. Sears promised that a "man of average abilities" could have the house ready to move into within 90 days.

There are 70,000 kit homes in 48 states. Unfortunately, Sears destroyed all sales records sometime in the 1940s during a corporate house cleaning. The only way to find the houses today is literally one by one.

Sears offered these homes in 370 designs, and I have memorized each of those 370 designs. My life's work is driving around and identifying these homes. It's a lot of fun but pretty time consuming.

And that's how I found Cairo, Illinois. It was the home of the Sears Mill, and the precut kit homes were shipped from that mill.

Here's hoping this post makes it through the moderation gauntlet and appears!!! :)

Rose Thornton
author, The Houses That Sears Built
Interesting stuff. I actually did some of my own research on Sears homes a while back when I was purchasing my first home. There was one that I was interested in that was located in one of he best neighborhoods in my town and happened to be a Sears home. This led me to do some research and discover some information on it where I learned it was a model called the "Del Ray" from 1922, albeit modifed from it's original appearance over the decades. Sadly, it was priced a little higher than I could afford at the time and needed a bit of work for that price, so I didn't purchase it. I hope you post more about the Sears homes, though, because I find the mail-order homes era fascinating.
 

cyke

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Just stumbled on this

Awesome pic set. There is a strange, eerie beauty to those images. Loved it.
 

RosemaryT

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Cairo

Cairo is a fascinating little town, and it was a major port city back in the day. Do you remember the movie "Centennial" (James Michener)?

He talked briefly about Cairo, Illinois as a gateway city.

It's so incredible that this once-thriving town is now just a shell of its former self.

Rose
 

Dan

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RosemaryT

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Cairo

Well, here are some happy happy Sears Homes in Cairo. As I think I mentioned above, Cairo was home to a 40-acre mill (20 acres under roof) where Sears established as a manufacturing point for their ready-cut Honor Bilt kit homes.

Not surprisingly, there are a lot of Sears Homes in and around Cairo. WHat's sad is to think about how many have been torn down? I'd suspect quite a few.















 

Cismontane

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Did these prices include the land or just the house materials and construction? interestingly, in current dollar terms, each dollar is worth 40 times as much as it was worth in 1947 and 60 times as much as it was worth in 1930.
 

mendelman

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Did these prices include the land or just the house materials and construction? interestingly, in current dollar terms, each dollar is worth 40 times as much as it was worth in 1947 and 60 times as much as it was worth in 1930.
I think it was just for the materials. Labor and land was the buyer's problem to source/purchase.
 

wahday

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Everything I know about Cairo, Ill I learned from this song:

"Cairo Blues" by Henry Townsend (I know it as a Son House tune, but this performance is great!) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IEJwAfQs0mk

"Cairo, Cairo is my baby's home
Cairo, Cairo is my baby's home
Going to Cairo now and I swear it won't be long"

This is a bit off topic, but this artist is a St. Louis based musician and Son House was also not from Cairo. And yet they both sing about the place. So, what's the significance of Cairo to African American history? Was it a big site of migration out of the south? I can see that it was a site of significant racial tension come the 1960's and the Civil Rights movement, but I wonder about before that. This song and others I have heard make it sound like a site of opportunity - and welcoming women!
 

Dan

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Project Cairo from Reddit: http://www.reddit.com/r/ProjectCairo/

From the site:

Project Cairo is an open effort to restore and bring life into the heavily subverted city of Cairo, Illinois (USA), and turn it into a thriving community. Our hope is to enact positive change and growth both socially and economically.
 
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