We’ve done a few posts on the ghost town of Cairo, Illinois, including a piece featuring Ace of Cups, a not-for-profit coffee shop that was trying to jolt some life back into the city. Sadly even the biggest hearts and best intentions couldn’t fuel an instant revival, yet the impact the cafe and its owners made was immense. They even helped Cairo become viral among the reddit community. We were fortunate enough to get an interview with Zach Rapattoni, one of the co-founders of Ace of Cups, who shared his experience with us, including the challenges of moving to the town, the local culture, and his thoughts on Project Cairo.
1. What part of your experience in Cairo are you most proud of?
It would probably be giving the community something it needed. A place to just hang out. We might not have been appreciated by a majority of the community, but as the cliche goes, if you make a difference to even one person then it’s all worth it. One of my favorite things we did was host a couple different kids’ birthday parties. I still keep in touch with a few of the friends I made there, and it’s sad to hear them talk about the good old days when Ace of Cups was open.
2. If you could sit down for a coffee with your past self the week before opening Ace of Cups, what advice would you give yourself?
I would probably tell myself not to set my expectations too high. I didn’t really know what to expect going in, but I think it might have been too much. Another thing would be to more aggressively initiate interactions with the community. The people of Cairo are suspect of outsiders in general, and hindsight being 20/20, I think our approach might have been too passive (which could go hand in hand with my first bit of advice to my past self).
3. What do you think would be the biggest challenges for a group of people moving to Cairo trying to revive the community?
Gaining support of the community as a whole. Based on our experiences there, I would say that a lot of the people don’t want to change. I think the biggest challenge will be getting the community behind whatever it is that you want to do.
4. How would you describe the local culture?
It’s a very small-town culture. News spreads fast, and people love to gossip. One thing I noticed is that it’s not really that much different from a larger city, but it so small and condensed that you don’t miss much. I think the biggest difference is that since the city itself is so geographically closed off, the people that live there have become closed off as well.
5. Have you seen any ideas on Project Cairo that seem feasible to you?
Some of them seem reasonable. The ones that include trying to become a part of the existing community and providing them with things they actually want AND need. But to the people that think Cairo would be great place to start some sort of commune, keep looking. Cairo is not the place to build your earth homes. We were looked at in an odd light just because we are vegetarians. If people start moving there and building houses out of dirt, something that off-the-wall (in the eyes of the community) will not be well received at all.
6. Many people want to contribute who would never move to Cairo or even visit. What are some projects/local organizations that we can support to begin building local relationships?
This is hard question for me to answer as this isn’t an approach I would personally consider. Also, no longer being a part of the community has put me out of touch with the needs the town has. Making donations to the Customs House museum would be a good place to start. The museum is the city’s greatest treasure in my opinion. Sending money through the proper channels to get the visitor center at Fort Defiance Park open is another thing that would help. The building was built, but it never even opened due to a lack of funds.
7. Where are you now? Would you move back if the reddit community decided to act on Project Cairo?
Since leaving Cairo, I have moved back to Orlando, Florida. I still had some roots planted here and it was a good place for me to come to get back on my feet. I can’t see myself going back to Cairo to try something new again. It was very taxing on us all with the limited resources that we had. That’s not to say I don’t support the idea or that I’m never going to go back again. I like Cairo a lot. I still miss it sometimes. People have been saying this for over a hundred years, but Cairo is full of potential. It could be a great place.