Data + Design Project

A Civil Rights Era Ghost Town

Tuesday 11.30.2010 , Posted by
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Ever come across something so offbeat that you craved an answer to its existence, but no one could give it to you? Next time, try asking Reddit. After coming across the ghost town of Cairo, Illinois, with demolished streets and buildings that barely hinted at once housing townspeople, Reddit user inkslave was left with a head spinning with questions. After no success on Wikipedia, he turned to Reddit: What the hell happened to Cairo, Illinois?

From the Cairo Project

“…I have lived in small, failing farm towns and even a large, failing farm town or two, so I know what economic drought looks like. But I have never seen anything on the scale I saw in Cairo. Have I just been blind to the depth of small-town blight in this country? Or is Cairo special? (And not in a good way.)”

And the answers began to come in, including this academic answer. Proving both intellect and interest in the subject, user GnatDog revealed expertise on that very town:

“I actually wrote my history master’s thesis on Civil Rights Era Cairo, so you can imagine my surprise when I see this question on the front page! I became fascinated by Cairo’s history when I participated in a photojournalism project at Southern Illinois University called the Cairo Project.”

Below are a few Cairo, Illinois pictures from various Flickr users.

(CC) FLICKR/RBMAN

(CC) FLICKR/JOSEPHA

(CC) FLICKR/GOBUCKS2

(CC) FLICKR/SLACK-A-GOGO

(CC) FLICKR/DCLEMM

(CC) FLICKR/CARLFBAGGE

Bunge Soybean Processing Plant (CC) FLICKR/CARLFBAGGE

It is a cool phenomenon on Reddit: someone can ask a seemingly obscure question about a very niche topic, and an actual expert on that subject could rise to the occasion and share insight.

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  1. this town like many other black towns, who were once prosperous, now lie in shambles thanks to “integration” thers many more cities like this, especially down south. the wholesale theft banks r committing today was perfected on us. what u see now, is a preview of wht wil lhappen to the rest of america, until we realize its not blak versus white or any other color, but rich against poor. poor blacks whites and jews, being abused and mislead by wealthy black whites and jews. the wealthy dnt care abt color, its a game used to the human kind.

  2. You can see a much larger version of this, with buildings that have been vacant since the 1960s by typing the words Detroit and Blight into Google images.

  3. Very interesting! Great photos. It would be a great economic experiment to perhaps salvage the metal, and some of that industrial machinery to save another town. Kind of like an organ transfer, for towns. Also maybe creating a town size museum and returning that land to it’s natural origin. Or farm land, if we subsidize it, we can make it worth it for someone to use the land to perhaps feed people for free.

    Anyone interested in doing something perhaps even artistic with this town, I live a bit near you can email me so we can collaborate on something great. Or at least get the ball rolling. Seems like such waste and I can tell the town was full thriving hard working type of people. We should honor its ghost. Without those towns at those periods our cities and society would be drastically different.

    Ask author of article for my email address if actually interested. I do not want spam, I want to help.

  4. Wow this is a really cool idea. Check your email I’d like to talk about how we might be able to get something rolling!

  5. Glad to see more people reading this and actually getting together to make something happen. I have a couple of friends in my hometown of Chicago and surrounding suburbs I can recruit. We are artists, construction workers, and regular people. If anyone hs a way to trace all the former industrial occupants. If some of them re still around I would love to contact them about helping out. This would also be a great idea for museums getting involved. I am sure the area is a gold mine for artifacts in one way or another. Seriously, by taking care of a messy past, we really do ensure a cleaner future. I mean that in both the philosophical and materialistic way.
    -Angel

  6. Very cool, thanks for replying to my email as well. Anyone else who wants to stay in tune with whatever we can pull together, just comment here.

  7. What type of artists are you? Cairo could use art of Cairo to sell, paintings, custom tshirts, etc….. The needs of the community are so basic you need to manage expectations…. Having money to open the Custom House Museum, maintenance on Riverlore, mowing at Ft Defiance Park are most of the time issues… It would be great to have a few artists with a retail presence there… A few painted murals or the like on buildings- note that the city would struggle to provide even paint for something like this…. Good luck!

  8. This looks really interesting. I am not near there right now, but am still interested if either of you want to get my email and contact me, it would be really nice :-)

  9. Awesome thanks a lot, we will let you know what we put together!

  10. Next stop, This place! I love ghost towns, we should call TAPS to head that way.

  11. Ha! Taps, that was a brilliant comment. Anyone interested in taking a tour we can actually combine efforts.

  12. Having grown up in Paducah, KY (just across the Ohio River), My dad would tell me cool stories about Cairo. He said that a few people owned most of the land and wouldn’t sell because they were being greedy and waiting for more money. This of course made the area land locked and no more development could be had. My dad told me that this information was from the librarian at the Cairo library.
    He also said that during the civil war, one of the “Yankee generals” put in a report that Cairo was the “prostitution capital of the US”. Even when he was in high school (in the mid 50′s), if you were driving through, the prostitutes would come out to your car as you were driving and knock on your window trying to solicit. “They weren’t any Playboys, if you know what I mean,” said my dad in relation to what the prostitutes looked like.
    You could do pretty much anything you wanted in Cairo, including get into a bar and drink at 13 years of age! Of course, I tease my dad that he knows that from experience. He just laughed.

    There is some amazingly beautiful architecture in Cairo, IL. It is just too bad that the town is so unsafe because something wonderful could be done with the town if someone had billions of dollars to pour into it. Yes, BILLIONS.

    [Sorry if this reply is a little scatterbrained. I've got pregnancy brain AND just woke up! :) ]

  13. Thanks a lot for sharing that story with us!

  14. wow. amazing photos. Sad thing is, wake up people, get outa your neat and tidy suburbs, look around. This is happening all across America, now. Historic Main streets all across the USA are in shambles, thanks to the likes of Wal Mart. USA boomtime has ended long ago, headstone being placed in the 70′s with the planned dismantling of our manufacturing base. NAFTA multiplied our woes even further. What is to come is hundreds of US cities now going bankrupt, money long gone to maintain historic buildings from the turn of the century? All that is left is abandoment and decay, much like you see here. In 20 years, when all of today’s retirees with their great lifetime benefits and pensions dry up, the boomtime family money passed down to the next generation will be gone as well, retirement will become a word of the past as well. USA is in for a world of hurt.

  15. If anyone is interested, there is a fascinating and important book on race relations and violence, which takes Cairo as its main site of interest. The book-length poem entitled _Blue Front_ by Martha Collins is a disturbing glimpse into the troubled past of the region, and America itself. The fact that Cairo now lies in ruins makes this book all the more poignant, so that what happened there is not forgotten. Check it out.

  16. cut off all welfare.

  17. Wow…this is my kind of town. A few nails,a little paint,and by jingo this place can be fixed up. (either for zombies or vampires….Im not sure which

  18. I am from Cairo.(Klondike) Grew up here till I was 12 years old. I have so many fond memories from this town. I’m just blown away as to how this town looks now. Live in Seattle Washington now and would love to collaborate with someone to do something positive. I’m 48 years old now! My mother and I still own property down there. Just hate to see history wasted!!!!

  19. Lots of opinions here, but not too many facts. My family farmed there, and didn’t want to sell there land because of that reason. They still don’t. The decline here has nothing to do with Walmart. There’s no Walmart there, by the way. There isn’t any industry there because tax rates are way too high. Crime is too high. There’s very few highly skilled or educated people there, and those kind of folks don’t want to live there because of the crime and decline.

    The only way to “fix” Cairo would be to invest heavily and repair infastructure; get rid of the crime; and reduce taxes and provide incentives to business to move there. That’s not going to happen anytime soon, because Illinois is broke. The whole State will look like Cairo someday if things don’t change.

  20. Sad and caused by an unavoidable outcome. To be sure, I’ve never heard of a major city–or a country for that matter–that survived for very long once the intellectual and commercial core of such a city was attacked or discriminated against in a severe manner. Early Western history shows that such severe discrimination drove the Jewish peoples from Western Europe when specific commercial interests were restricted to non-Jews. Banking, merchandising, and art centers of many sorts were suddenly restricted to non-Jews–meaning “no Jews need apply or stay for very long.” Tragically, Jews were driven out of their positions, homes, cities, governments, and thus states of many countries in Western Europe. Two such countries negatively affected by the inherently illogical anti-Jewish vote and action of rtheir on-Jewish citizens wewe Portugal and Spain, to mention just 2.

    Thus, the countries that ousted the Jews rendered both themselves and the Jewish peoples…outlaws. Both Portugal and Spain recreated their cities which made them “ripe for ruin!” Shortly, these non-Jewish cities began to collapse. There was no reason for ambitious people to remain. Their very lives were at stake. Opportunities evaporated and few non-Jewish citizens could even produce a handful of non-Jews who could read and write. Thus, commercial and industrial centers collapsed; managment p;rocedures and accouinting techniques and taxing rules and regs were changede all producing negative results. Eventually, wrong-headed thinkeres within the new ruling classes that expelled thje irother business centers fell into decay as informed and educated workers were3w “walking to Jeruselem!Q Thjwe setback the3se bare3lyu survivi8ng Wesatern couintries foisted upon them,selvwes by their absurdly stuipoid palns qand actgikonsdoomed the very people they were trying to elevate bove edsucateds peoples. (Furthwr rfeADINGF AT “DIASPORA”).

    city like Cairo–where I lived on Holbrook Ave.as a youth of 6 through 8 years of age–from 1935 to 1938 to be more precise–had about 3,700 whites and 12,000 blacks on average during this short period. The imbalance of racial numbers

    Whites were not in any immediate danger during the years I was there, but shortly after my family left for good in 1938 things had dramatically turned around for both black and white people in Cairo.

    Black and white people in Cairo tried a different approach to the “sort-of-friendly-association” they both enjoyed prior to 1938, and the new change brought an immediate connection to raw political change by many blacks

  21. I grew up in Cairo. We moved there when I was 4 years old. I went through the riots, and was present at the skating rink when the incident occured there. We lived in Future City most of the time.
    I rode my bicycle all over future city, traded with the two stores there. I was never afraid. My parents took me and my two sister to St. Mary’s Park often, and dropped us off for the afternoon. No one ever bothered us. I never knew of prostitutes running cars down. Cairo had it’s share of bars. Our mother left us at home alone, while she worked at Cox Laundry, and my dad worked at Holliday Sand Company. Some people are trying to make Cairo look like “Hell on Earth”, and it wasn’t. I attended Safford and The High School that is torn down now. I had excellent teachers. I am now a licensed Social Worker (BSW). AND, I AM WHITE. My memories of Cairo are mostly good!

  22. Ran across this page because as a baby boomer born in Chicago, I wondered what the town once nicked named the “Lynching Capitol of the North” looked like today. For some reason it gave me pleasure to know Cairo, IL suffered to extinction. For those philanthropic entrepreneurs who have considered rebuilding this town, I suggest you rename it unless you champion the heinous reputation it once held. If you decide to keep the name, all people of conscience can make an educated decision to stay on the Interstate road as the bypass it. Judging from the photos many of the dark spirits of injustice still haunt this town where lawmakers turn a blind eye in the murdering of its citizens. No wonder, anything build on hatred, soon bites the dust due to non sustainable footing. Love is the absolute footing and the only answer to save this world from the same ghostly ends. Instead bring you artistic intensions to Chicago. There are many neighborhoods where the kind of contribution you speak of can flourish.

  23. In regards to the comments from “NORTH SIDE CHI” there is no need to change the name of Cairo. If you feel that changing the name and slapping some coats of artistic paint on some walls is the answer to Cairo’s intractible problems then your logic meter needs adjusting. The town is virtually ruined, hopeless. Industry will not move there any more than it will move to East Saint Louis or Gary, In. Look at the educational levels, attitudes and demographics of most residents and that alone would send any thinking entrepreneur running for the hills. *I* would not move a business to Cairo for any reason I can think of. I don’t mean to bash *EVERY* resident of Cairo but sadly I feel the best and most productive residents have long since left or will leave. And isn’t that a pity!? The folks most needed by the town have went after greener pastures, and realistically who can blame them? This is, ironically one town where a Wal-Mart could help, since the entire downtown has no businesses to drive out and at least Wal-Mart could provide some jobs. I want to advocate better schooling, but considering the towns “sociological demographics” I think that would largely be throwing good many after bad in the vast majority of cases. Sure there would be some individual educational successes but once again those successful students would almost certainly leave Cairo anyway. And how about flattening those useless abandoned buildings in the town center? It would be a start, eliminating blight. Those stores and buildings can not be economically repaired or remodeled in any case, and no new business would move in anyways. Lastly, I want to congratulate those “Civil Rights” leaders for getting what they wanted: the destruction of successful *white* businesses which were the towns lifeblood, now replaced with utter desolation and despair from “their” people too lazy, shiftless, mediocre, violent and educationally disdaining to ever regrow the town and community. You have really achieved something – replacing success with virtual death!! The epsilons have taken over the town, and are on the way to taking over our society. I am saddened for Cairo, and I fear for America.

  24. To”Steelwolf”…it’s thinking like that which directly contributed to the downfall of this town…that racist..yes I said it..”it’s them not us” sort of distorted thinking that does not help but hurt communities. If this place would have been more inclusive,less violent..yes they lynched many a person of color,engaged in economic diversity,then it would still probably be thriving…I recently passed through that ghost town,it was errie, foggy, you can feel the negative energy…couldn’t wait to get out of there…and the town is one big speed trap..thats how they generate revenue..sad place with a bloody past.

  25. For the last nine months I have been making a trip once a month from TN to MO and go through Cairo on the way up and the way back. This town has just amazed me. I have often wondered what it would take to bring life back to this town. I can only imagine the true beauty that this town could be again.

  26. id like to say…i once took a wrong turn on my way back east and ended up in cairo ill…it was the most shamefull sad thing id ever seen…once beautiful homes in ruin the old church destroyed trees growing inside the downtown buildings…in the middle of town was a bar i walked in to find bikers with men stationed on each side of the door with shotguns! i asked what was up..
    with the town? i was told it was no place to be sightseeing and we needed to leave as soon as possible as if we were to stay longer we risked being raped robbed or killed! i was told how all the decent people both white and black were run out of town by drug dealers theives and the worse of the worse…it was like a scene from the twilight zone..they said now you know youve seen Hell…now leave and dont even stop to go to the bathroom til your at least 50miles from here …we took pictures and left asap…so very sad that people blame game when its plain to see the people left there just dont care….it would make a great tourist attraction and people could make money there if only someone would get rid of the scum that holds the town hostage

  27. i was truely sickened when in 2007 when we took a wrong turn and ended up in cairo ill on our way back east..the whole town looked like a scene out of the twilight zone…once beautiful victorian homes in ruin the old church destroyed the downtown devastated..as we walked we came to a lonely bar walked in and were met by bikers on each side of the door with shotguns….we were told that the town was taken over by drug dealers theives & all the decent people bith black and white were run off long ago…and if we cared for our lives we’d leave asap! and not to stop until we were at least 50miles from cairo! this town would make a great tourist attraction.and the people could make money doing it…but not til all the scum are gone….its so sad that people chose to live this way…and i dont want to hear any bleedingg hearts talking crap about racial things…pride doesnt cost money if they can afford drugs they can afford paint….its disgraceful

  28. As a young boy, my family would travel frequently through Cairo on our way across the Ohio and into Kentucky. My grandparents lived in LaCenter and we would stay with them and spend almost every vacation with them. I have some very fond memories of Cairo, where we would stop at “The Pit” bar-b-que drive in and eat almost every time. Being from the north, we also had to make the ritualistice stop at the “Stop-n-Shop” grocery store and get our limit of Blue Bell balogna and Bunny bread. For some reason they always tasted much better that what we could get here in the north. Our trips always included a few days of fishing out at Horseshoe lake. My grandfather and father would tell stories of their younger days as migrant workers on the docks of the river and farming the land between the lake. It is sad to see the town in the condition it is now. I know that there were some hard and even violent times in and around Cairo, but I also know through the eyes of a child that there were some very good people in that city also.

  29. I LIVED IN CAIRO WHEN I WAS YOUNG AND IN GRADE SCHOOL. MY DAD RAN A S.H. KRESS FIVE & DIME STORE IN THE DOWNTOWN AREA. CAN REMEMBER GREAT THINGS ABOUT CAIRO FROM THEN, NOTHING LIKE WHAT HAS HAPPENED. THAT WOULD HAVE BEEN IN THE MID 1950′S OR SO. THE GRADE SCHOOL WAS A 2 STORY BUILDING WITH THE CLASSES ON EACH SIDE OF THE BUILDING AND IN THE MIDDLE WAS THE GYM. WE HAD FIRE DRILLS THAT WE SLIDE DOWN THESE LONG SHOOTS TO THE GROUND LEVEL.

  30. Cairo was a wonderful town in the 1960s before the trouble fro chicago got here

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Visual News puedes ver el resto de las fotos… y en Reddit la explicación de qué pasó a [...]

  2. [...] A Civil Rights Era Ghost Town"After coming across the ghost town of Cairo, Illinois, with demolished streets and buildings that barely hinted at once housing townspeople, Reddit user inkslave was left with a head spinning with questions. After no success on Wikipedia, he turned to Reddit: What the hell happened to Cairo, Illinois?"(tags:history ) [...]

  3. [...] *Photography* A Civil Rights Era Ghost Town http://www.visualnews.com/2010/11/30/cairo-illinois-picture/ See roommate? THIS is a fun [...]

  4. [...] A Civil Rights Era Ghost Town [...]

  5. [...] images, take a look at this photo essay on Cairo, Illinois. Cairo is the heart of the heartland, at the pulsing confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. [...]

  6. [...] • What the Hell Happened to Cairo, Illinois? [...]

  7. [...] state park was closed and the road to the point washed out. So I crossed the river and headed into Cairo, IL. I did not stop, I did not get out, and I did not take any pic­tures. You can prob­a­bly [...]

  8. [...] the collapse of cities like Detroit and towns like Cairo comes an abundance of abandoned architecture. Crumbling facades, smashed windows, and graffitied [...]

  9. [...] the end of November we did a feature on the ghost town of Cairo, Illinois whose images of decay not only haunted us, but also many members of reddit’s [...]

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