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Cairo, Illinois: America's most depressing city

JNA

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Speaker of the Missouri House said

FIRST -
whether he would rather see Cairo or the farmland underwater, he told reporters, "Cairo. I've been there, trust me. Cairo."

"Have you been to Cairo?" he added. "OK, then you know what I'm saying then."

SECOND -
want to apologize for my insensitive remark and personally apologize to anyone that I offended."

"My commitment to the residents and farmers of southeast Missouri should not have led me to insult another community and for that I am sincerely regretful."
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/04/28/missouri-house-speaker-st_n_855139.html
Another slap.

For more info article: Missouri takes levee battle to U.S. Supreme Court
 
Last edited:

Dan

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Cairo has been saved.

Who needs farmland anyway? It's so dirty and dusty. http://www.searshomes.org/index.php/2011/05/01/boom-goes-the-levees-cairo-to-be-spared/
Legally, it was the right thing to do. The breaching of the Birds Point levee was done according to a very long-established and well-known plan. Also, the affected farmers knew their land sat on floodway easements.

That being said, I don't think there was any risk of flood-related causalities in Cairo. The Mississippi rose slowly, and Cairo's residents had plenty of time to evacuate. From a cost-benefit standpoint, there was more to lose by breaching the Birds Point levee than by letting the river top over the Cairo levees. Also, even if Cairo was spared for now, it's fate still seems sealed, only the town will take a few more slow, painful decades to die. A flood could have been the best thing to happen to many Cairo residents, by washing away the inertia that kept them to seek out better opportunities and lives elsewhere.

What would be lost if Cairo disappears from the map? Some historic landmarks, perhaps. Still, they might be preserved if the city was turned into a "Confluence National Park" or similar attraction, as with many ghost towns in the West. Save Magnolia Manor, the Customs House, the armory, the library, and the few intact of bungalows and four squares around Washington Avenue, and let the rest of the town return to nature. The cost of establishing and operating Confluence National Park could be far less than what is currently spent on state and federal programs that now keep Cairo on life support.

On another note, I wonder what Cairo would be like today if the race riots of the 1960s and 1970s never happened. The local economy and population would have continued to decline because of the shift away from river transport, but would have there been the extensive abandonment seen today? Would Commercial Street still be a viable, if not exactly prospering business district? In this report, it's claimed that Cairo was in rough shape even before the riots. From the report:

Perhaps the most outwardly depressing aspect of Cairo is its housing. Despite a few postbellum mansions and some magnificent old magnolia trees, the town in 1970 had the appearance of utter neglect and decay. At least one-half of Cairo's housing was substandard and in need of major repair. Nearly every block of the city contained one or more abandoned buildings – although it was sometimes difficult to differentiate which buildings were abandoned and which ones were still being used to house families. Unpainted and unheated frame houses with broken porches, windows, and doors were the rule and not the exception in Cairo.
 

mgk920

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^^
Speaking of that, I'm kind of wondering how long it will be before the 'Old Muddy' decides to take a permanent reroute in Louisiana, opting for the Atchafalaya through Morgan City over its current course through New Orleans....

Mike
 

otterpop

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^^
Speaking of that, I'm kind of wondering how long it will be before the 'Old Muddy' decides to take a permanent reroute in Louisiana, opting for the Atchafalaya through Morgan City over its current course through New Orleans....

Mike
Having spent a summer working in Morgan City, let's hope it isn't anytime soon. :-c

It will happen. The Army Corps can only prevent it for so long. It would be a great loss. The Atchafalaya Basin is one of the country's most amazing ecosystems and an unprotected wilderness area. Louisiana's wild crawfish industry is centered there. The Basin is one of the last outposts of individualism. The people who live and work there are an amazaing group of people. When the river changes its course, a way of life will go with it.
 

Esteban

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ghosts

I was in Cairo a few times back in 2005 on business. There is still some movement in the barge/riverboat business. I spent a a lot of my spare time just driving and walking the streets in this incredible ghost town. I swear I could hear voices on the wind as I stood on the sidewalk of what looked like a well-made city that had been simply abandoned. Someone mentioned The Twilight Zone and that is what it felt like. Like some apocalyptic futuristic scene from a movie. On the millionaire's row, although I didn't know it was called that, I was aghast at the beautiful homes, some of which looked like they'd been plucked out of Florida and put down in this weird place. I wondered as much about the people who looked to be living prosperous lives in this desolate place as I did about all those who abandoned it to rot. Looking at these pictures just gives me some weird feeling of wanting to be in that desolate place. Strange and creepy. Great photos.
 

lewyn

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Cairo vs. East St. Louis

Has anyone been to both East St. Louis and Cairo? How do they compare?
 

Dan

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Has anyone been to both East St. Louis and Cairo? How do they compare?
Been through ESL (off the highway, drove around for a few minutes, back on, which probably doesn't count), and in Cairo (driving through most neighborhoods, walking around downtown and the Washington Street area.)

ESL ; population almost exclusively black, almost nonexistent middle class, some industrial remnants.

Cairo: about 30%-40% white, small middle class (east of Sycamore St) and some old money remnants, almost no industry (soybean plant, nautical services). Cairo has a functioning Ford dealer in the City limits, which surprised me. Cairo also has a growing community of black Jews. (!)

Also, ESL is the "little brother gone wrong" to St. Louis, right across the Mississippi. Cairo has no "big brother" city.

East Cleveland and Hough didn't scare me. Neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago don't scare me. The East Side of Buffalo doesn't scare me. ESL scared me. Cairo has a reputation for corrupt law enforcement ("Y'all got a broken headlight, bo-ah! *smash*) and a population of gruff "river rats" that don't take kindly to blight tourists, so I felt somewhat on edge there.
 

paiste13

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228
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It is probably better than waiting for the bureaucracy of demolition funding and state/local/epa permits to play out. Sometimes a dark night and a bulldozer would be a good option for some of these buildings.
 

mgk920

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On that note, I've sometimes wondered why some seriously declining cities don't sell 'time' on their abandoned/uninhabitable and beyond economic repair and restoration houses and other buildings to various fire agencies for live-fire training. Doing that, they could bring in some revenue, offer that valuable training to those guys and get rid of those severely blighted structures all in one swoop.

Or maybe they haven't thought of that.

Mike
 

DetroitPlanner

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On that note, I've sometimes wondered why some seriously declining cities don't sell 'time' on their abandoned/uninhabitable and beyond economic repair and restoration houses and other buildings to various fire agencies for live-fire training. Doing that, they could bring in some revenue, offer that valuable training to those guys and get rid of those severely blighted structures all in one swoop.

Or maybe they haven't thought of that.

Mike
Many of these building have serious structural issues, that when combined with a fire would make them very dangerous for fire fighters to enter. I know that there are certain buildings around here that the fire department just lets burn and their primary job is to ensure it don't spread.
 

Linda_D

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On that note, I've sometimes wondered why some seriously declining cities don't sell 'time' on their abandoned/uninhabitable and beyond economic repair and restoration houses and other buildings to various fire agencies for live-fire training. Doing that, they could bring in some revenue, offer that valuable training to those guys and get rid of those severely blighted structures all in one swoop.

Or maybe they haven't thought of that.

Mike
That's a fairly common way for rural/small town VFDs to get training in nearby Cattauraugus and Allegany Counties, but not so much here in the Jamestown area where there actually is a fire training center. These are mostly old houses and barns that are burned, however. I'm NOT sure about burning old industrial sites. Probably old grist or saw mills would be no worse than old barns or houses, but old factories might have lots of contaminants.
 

Steve Kane

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Perhaps this has been mentioned somewhere else on the forum, but did anyone read about this project that a small record label owner attempted in Cairo, IL a few years back? It's a pretty interesting read:

http://pix.hijinx.nu/index.php?topic=34429.0

Moderator note:
(Dan) New user, post with a URL, I know, but relevant, so I approved.
 

Patty Furkin

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Cairo: I remember

All these posts about Cairo are amazing to me. I haven't been there in about 45 years, since I was a kid, but my mom was born there. We used to go down there on weekends. Picking pecans and peaches was the best part of the trip for me as a kid, but watching the happenings around the docks and levee were fun too, especially since we lived up around the similar setup around Granite City. I never noticed any of the people being unfriendly, but that just could be the mind of a child. There were some rundown neighborhoods, but I never ever expected to see the loss I have seen in the pictures here today. For a town to be so full of hate and prejudice that it can basically show up as an advertisement against itself is just outrageous to me. Now, I'll have to be sure I make the trip next time I go home!:(
 

Dan

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The Cairo Citizen, Cairo's print newspaper, finally seems to have a reliable, regularly updated presence online. The photography is excellent.

http://thecairocitizen.com

This is a sad article: New Businesses Bring Growth to Cairo. Not sad because it's growth, but sad because businesses would be seen as nothing out of the ordinary elsewhere are seen as signs of hope in Cairo.

Short said he will be opening a Subway, a Chester’s Chicken and a Blue Fish General Store in the old Piggly Wiggly
 

RobRKR

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I have been fascinated with this town for so long, after driving past and through it so many times on my way south from Chicago. Glad to see the interest and so much info here. I've been doing research on Cairo on and off ever since I found the book, 'Let My People Go' back in college 20 years ago.
 

Cable254

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Things have changed!

Perhaps this has been mentioned somewhere else on the forum, but did anyone read about this project that a small record label owner attempted in Cairo, IL a few years back? It's a pretty interesting read:

http://pix.hijinx.nu/index.php?topic=34429.0

Moderator note:
(Dan) New user, post with a URL, I know, but relevant, so I approved.
These folks that were on the cover of Time magazine are long gone and NEW business has moved in several months ago as well as NEW business on 7th and Commercial streets. You need some new pictures....
 

lccramer

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Depressing.....Yes

I am not from Cairo, but I have numerous relatives that come from there and lived there their entire life. My parents E. B. Cramer and my mother D. V. Stone both lived in Caire and attended school there and married there. My mother was born in Deilhstadt, Mo, which is across the river from Cario, close to Charleston, Mo., and my brother was also born there. I have many fond memories of visiting Cairo as a child and into my teens. It was a great place to visit, it was starting it downturn and was loosing people and business's at that time. My grandparents (Cramer) are buried at the cemetery just outside of town, my uncle Joesph Cramer, who was killed in WW II is also buried there. My father was a member of Co. K. Its sad to see Cairo as it sits today. To me Cairo will always be remembered for Mac's BBQ and the now instinct Buttertop Coffeecake, which was just about all I ate when we visited. My last relative that lived there passed away recently. My cousin Pee Wee Stone (Albert L. Stonee Jr.) died last year in the nursing home there. I will always remember Cairo the way it was in my youth.
 

DetroitPlanner

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Here is something interesting I heard about Cairo. One of its major industries had to do with Sears homes. In hearing this, I think that this could have been a major cause of strife among the working class in Cairo. Sears homes died out after WW-2 when developers realized they could deliver homes at a much greater profit and a lower cost by producing them similar to an auto assembly line. Naturally there was more competition for jobs starting in the 1950's and that could have been part of the us vs. them mentality that divided the town. In addition, it had to have taken the economic wind out of the sails as they had fewer goods they could export. This could have caused a downward spiral similar to what had happened to Detroit due to global competition.
 

Folk Hood

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25
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2
Needin' a "Little Egypt" Spring

Those were some truly amazing pictures at the head of the thread. And as someone else mentioned, it looks pretty desolate; no one is walking around.

The Mississippi Valley is unique and unusual, IMO, compared to the rest of the Midwest/Midsouth/South that the river goes through.

Despite that, in many places elsewhere, it appears that Cairo is one of the pioneers. Yea, a pioneer of decline. When this thread started is about the same time when plenty of boom towns were going bust. Plenty of long-time economic powerhouses have reached a point where the economic erosion has become serious enough to say in those places, it's not just a temporary downturn but long-term ...or even that life is permanently changed, like in Cairo.

True turn-arounds are becoming fewer and farther between. Along the Mississippi, Davenport/Quad Cities and Dubuque were once considered the epitomes of Midwest rust. These days they are doing pretty well. But these are the lucky ones. Other towns seem immune to economic resuscitation - or there is not enough of the gravy to pass around the table.
 

Dan

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Despite that, in many places elsewhere, it appears that Cairo is one of the pioneers. Yea, a pioneer of decline. When this thread started is about the same time when plenty of boom towns were going bust. Plenty of long-time economic powerhouses have reached a point where the economic erosion has become serious enough to say in those places, it's not just a temporary downturn but long-term ...or even that life is permanently changed, like in Cairo.
When I lived in Austin, I'd take frequent weekend journeys on the farm-to-market roads leading out of town, seeing what lies beyond the hipsters and bats. East of Austin, the blackland prairies are littered with dying little towns. They last prospered in the 1920s, when weather was unusually good, farming and light industry was extremely labor intensive, intercity roads were still bad, and the middle class was coming onto its own. Most of these towns no longer have a reason to exist; they hang on through inertia, pride, and to some extent, economic development programs. They'll never come back. They're too far from any larger city to be a bedroom community, they have no critical mass of their own to build on, and only a few have unique advantages or charms that make them stand out from the hundreds of other prairie towns. No amount of Main Street programs, enterprise zones, tax incentives, public works projects, lot giveaways, or campaigns promoting their "family friendly" nature will save them.

This phenomenon is nothing new. Throughout Europe, thousands of small villages have emerged and disappeared through the centuries. The United States is still a young country. Even though we try to prop up these small towns, I think over the next century or two, most of the places that have lost their reason for existence will disappear from the map. Cairo will probably be among the larger communities that eventually cease to be, but others will follow.
 

mgk920

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When I lived in Austin, I'd take frequent weekend journeys on the farm-to-market roads leading out of town, seeing what lies beyond the hipsters and bats. East of Austin, the blackland prairies are littered with dying little towns. They last prospered in the 1920s, when weather was unusually good, farming and light industry was extremely labor intensive, intercity roads were still bad, and the middle class was coming onto its own. Most of these towns no longer have a reason to exist; they hang on through inertia, pride, and to some extent, economic development programs. They'll never come back. They're too far from any larger city to be a bedroom community, they have no critical mass of their own to build on, and only a few have unique advantages or charms that make them stand out from the hundreds of other prairie towns. No amount of Main Street programs, enterprise zones, tax incentives, public works projects, lot giveaways, or campaigns promoting their "family friendly" nature will save them.

This phenomenon is nothing new. Throughout Europe, thousands of small villages have emerged and disappeared through the centuries. The United States is still a young country. Even though we try to prop up these small towns, I think over the next century or two, most of the places that have lost their reason for existence will disappear from the map. Cairo will probably be among the larger communities that eventually cease to be, but others will follow.
I agree, towns come and go and if the money isn't there, no amount of academic thought will bring them back.

And, IMHO, a larger one that I know of that is on that same track is Ontonagon, MI, located in da wesdern YooPee, a general region with many mining ghost towns. With a 2000 Census population of 1769, it had shrunk to 1494 by 2010, when the Smurfit-Stone paper mill - and the city's (actually organized as a Village) main reason for existing - closed and the plant has since been demolished. My expectation is that it will eventually shrink to about 200-300, enough to service tourists to the nearby Porcupine Mountains and support the county's government. I believe that it will be an interesting planning case study in the decline of a place that has lost its reason for being.

Mike
 

mikeoleary

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the rest of the story

I grew up in Cairo and left in 1960. the racial issues were so hidden from us that we didn't really know they existed. a look at the Cairo High School yearbook from 1960 is an illustration of this ..it revers to a "Norman Rockwell" existence this is a town that died of racism.
.
 

highseas

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Interesting city

I like all of the pictures. I just read an O. Henry short story "The Exact Science of Matrimony" and the town that the story was set in was Cairo, IL. So I looked it up. The story was probably written in the 1910's when Cairo was booming.

Very sad Cairo looks, but I would love to visit as I am intrigued by cities that have risen and then fallen. I guess there is no solid solution to saving Cairo. I feel like if you could buy one of the buildings or one of the older homes you could use it as artists studios, if that would work in that region, rent them out super cheap and give artists and craftspeople a place to work for cheap!

This original post was from 5 years ago! so maybe something positive has happened since then - I hope :)
 

highseas

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The book about Cairo

Thanks for posting this JNA, I look forward to seeing what this book has to say about Cairo.
 

Jebbroker

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Cairo after WW ll

I was born in Cairo in 1948. Dad, a WWll veteran, managed the Woods Motor Company, on Sycamore St next door to the fire department. Both buildings are still standing.

At the time the local hospital was run by Catholics. Dad and Mom first rented an apartment on 10th or 11th St. owned by W.T.and Hazel Hails (sp?). They had no children. Mr. Hails was a conductor on the Illinois Central Railroad. He and Dad would take me to railroad station north of town (can't find it on Google Earth now) and one of my earliest memories is sitting in the cab of a new IC D-3 locomotive. I also remembering going to the station with a group of people to receive the body of a Cairo son killed in the Korean War.

We were members of the First Christian Church located on 14th Street (I think). It appears to have been torn down.

I remember the hustling business on both sides of the street in the block where the Gem a Theatre was located. Cairo had a big parade when 7Up was first introduced. I remember ice cream suppers in a vacant lot near the Church.

We later moved to a corner house at 34th and Highland. Now it's the early 1950s. This was before modern refrigeration and supermarkets. It seem each block or so had a little grocery store. We shopped at Mr. Rink's store down the alley in the next block.

I remember the Mark Twain Hotel, the Cairo Evening Citizen (a daily newspaper then), and boat races on the Ohio River. And I remember the Magnolia Manor especially the large magnolias there at the time. There was a city bus service. Mother's baby sister moved in with us and she became an operator at the local phone company. One time one of the bus drivers gave my aunt and I a free ride around the whole route the bus ran.

Once the Barnum and Bailey Circus came to town and the promoter wanted to borrow a Henry J car Dad was trying to sell. All of the seats were removed. With front row seats "comped ", I got to see the little Henry J motor out to the center ring and watch all these clowns emerge from that little car. The circus was held in a large field which backed up to the north levee adjacent to the big gate which would be lowered to protect the city from flooding.

We moved to Memphis in 1954. I was not a eyewitness to decay and long decline of Cairo, and I followed with sadness the reporting of the city's accelerated destruction during the racial tensions of the late 1960s.
 

JNA

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Articles -
Army Corps Project Pits Farmland Against Flood Threat
http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2015/02/24/388463024/army-corps-project-pits-farmland-against-flood-threat

pitting some deep-pocketed farm owners against less wealthy towns like Cairo.

Leaders, residents optimistic about the future of Cairo
http://thesouthern.com/news/local/leaders-residents-optimistic-about-the-future-of-cairo/article_a15bdc19-f1c8-5d2b-84a2-055cafd53405.html

overcoming a “spirit of hopelessness” that has engulfed not only Cairo but also the lower Southern Illinois region.
Involving the public in the planning, a critical missing piece up to recent times in the city’s health, has helped restore hope.,
 

The One

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8,283
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Oh Yeah.....

How are we doing with obtaining the Cyburbia Compound in Cairo Illinois?? We should crowd fund that thing!
 

The Terminator

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1,584
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How are we doing with obtaining the Cyburbia Compound in Cairo Illinois?? We should crowd fund that thing!
I think our compound should be in Detroit!

Fun Fact: Cairo, IL had a crusty af, super politically correct anarchist pop punk centered around the label "Plan-it-X Records" and this dork named Chris Clavin. They came to Cairo because no one else in the midwest wanted them and their body odor and crappy music. As far as I know they've all packed up and left for Bloomington, IN by now.
 

JNA

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NPR story -
Saving Cairo: A Once Thriving River Town Finds Itself On Life Support
http://www.npr.org/2017/06/04/528650995/saving-cairo-a-once-thriving-river-town-finds-itself-on-life-support?utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=npr&utm_term=nprnews&utm_content=20170604

HIGHLIGHTS -
has one of the fastest depopulation rates in the United States
real fears of a domino effect here - - housing, school enrollment
There hasn't been a new, private home built in Cairo for an astonishing 50 years.
 

The One

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Oh Yeah.....

I think our compound should be in Detroit!

Fun Fact: Cairo, IL had a crusty af, super politically correct anarchist pop punk centered around the label "Plan-it-X Records" and this dork named Chris Clavin. They came to Cairo because no one else in the midwest wanted them and their body odor and crappy music. As far as I know they've all packed up and left for Bloomington, IN by now.
Detroit would be great! I can get a mid century two story classic for about $750.
 

JNA

Cyburbian Plus
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Ben Carson says despite public housing crisis, Cairo can be saved
http://www.miamiherald.com/news/politics-government/national-politics/article165985292.html

Carson visited the southern Illinois town as two public housing complexes are being torn down, forcing hundreds of residents to find new homes.
He said HUD is working hard to keep as many people in Cairo as possible who are being displaced from the two projects.
I wonder what other HUD Secretaries have visited ? or made promises ?
 

JNA

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BUMP

Abandoned Town of Cairo, Illinois
A once-booming Mississippi River port town has transformed into an eerie, mostly abandoned ghost town.
https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/cairo-illinois?utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=atlas-page

Still making the news -

A 'dying community'
https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2018/sports/as-cairo-illinois-reckons-with-public-housing-crisis-basketball-hangs-on/?utm_term=.b7eca3d17751

HUD May Soon Evict Residents in Two Public Housing Complexes in Southern Illinois
https://www.propublica.org/article/hud-evict-residents-public-housing-cairo-southern-illinois
 

JNA

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'Nobody Cares About Cairo': Residents of Shrinking River Town Fight To Bring It Back
June 16, 2018
https://www.npr.org/2018/06/16/618959048/nobody-cares-about-cairo-residents-of-shrinking-river-town-fight-to-bring-it-bac?utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=npr&utm_term=nprnews&utm_content=20180616

HIGHLIGHTS
For years, a slow moving disaster has enveloped large parts of the middle of the country with whole towns emptying out and drying up. No place better illustrates this than Cairo,

"There are Cairos throughout the United States who are being forgotten because of this perception that the communities are not desirable."

But how far should you go to keep people in a place where there aren't many opportunities?
 

The One

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Update

I'm reading American Ulysses a biography of U.S. Grant and Cairo was described as being further south than Richmond, VA and a stop along the way to Vicksburg and New Orleans. A great book so far.....
 
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Dan

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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.
Off-topic: a stark contrast to the corner of Ferry and Elmwood in Buffalo.

On-topic: it's really hard to find news about what's going on in Cairo. The public housing crisis made national news, but since then, there hasn't been much. The Cairo Citizen Web site seems to be gone, but the paper has a Facebook group with infrequent updates The Southern Illinoisan has an ongoing "Chaos in Cairo" series.
 
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