A Dandelion Grows in Cairo

A dandelion grows in Cairo, but not where you’d expect.

I’m in Cairo, Illinois. Locals pronounce it care-oh. It’s a small town of 2,831 at the southernmost tip of the state, occupying the 9.08-square-mile interfluve at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. It’s a sweaty, summer afternoon, and I’m standing under the shade of the rusted marquee at the Gem Theater on 8th Street, the heart of Cairo’s historic district. The theater was built in 1910 and rehabbed in 1934, with a three-story red brick façade and Art Deco-style Terra Cotta finishes at the crown. The theater has been closed since 1978, and wilted plywood covers its windows. A ruddy strain of hairy crabgrass has forced itself through the decomposing sidewalk like alien patchwork.

Across the street, I face a block of shuttered storefronts, parti-walls sullied by water damage, mallows, and crawling spurges. A motley troupe of rotten saw horses sections off an entrance to an abandoned bank with a collapsed roof, but on the central eave of a second-story window, highlighted against the faded boards, a smiling spot of yellow dances in the humid breeze—a dandelion. Like much of Cairo, the street is silent, but for a brief moment, I sense joy from the weed.

And, I suppose, in the heart of this—the degradation of ‘Main Street’ (or 8th Street)—there is a victory, too. But for whom (or what)?

I’m a child of the American Midwest, and have never needed to venture far to glance at the future. Even a cursory stroll down Main Street (or 8th Street) portends decline, but this is a shortsighted view, without hope or aspiration. Alternately, though the melancholy of the dandelion on the eaves suggests the sublime beauty of nature’s persistence, it’s saturnine to merely sit by and wait for this transformation to erase the vestiges of our ‘civilized’ pretense. Our look to the future should thus be informed by our view of the present as it is suspended between the auspices of environmental progression and the self-congratulating vagaries of so-called forward thinking.

Looking in this way at the infrastructural tendrils and appendages of Small Town America, we first must understand that the constructed world also functions as a mirror. Does the devolution of Small Town America reflect a human regression? According to a 2007 study by the United Nations, seventy percent of all humans are expected to live in urban areas by 2050. Left behind are the effluvia of forsaken infrastructure and architecture; this, the supposed shrapnel of a shattered mirror. But suppose this is a myopic view? That is, what if the devolution of 8th Street describes this suspended view—this aspirational view?

With a view towards the future, Cairo is interesting in the dual sense that, as an old industrial city, its story is fairly representative of Small Town America’s rise and decline, though the city’s socially volatile background also casts it as an analogical synecdoche for the Large American City. To investigate, let’s stroll off 8th Street and take a bird’s eye view of the district:

In 1818, John G. Comegys, a St. Louis merchant by way of Baltimore—and avowed friend of Meriwether Lewis—purchased an 1,800-acre plot of land in the area that would be Cairo. He recognized the developmental possibilities of locating a commercial center at such a heavily trafficked confluence, though he died roughly a year after the purchase and when his family defaulted on the land payments, ownership reverted to the federal government.

The completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 and subsequent growth of cities like Rochester and Syracuse in the Northeast served as the impetus for other investors and land developers to look westward in an attempt to capitalize on the nascent waterway economy. This lead Boston-based investor Darius Holbrook to incorporate the Cairo City & Canal Company in 1837. Like Comegys, Holbrook saw the value of locating development on the interfluve, despite the fact that its low elevation rendered the land swampy and resistant to settlement. Holbrook thus sold bonds to improve the area with a levee system, shipyards, a dry dock, and other amenities. Over the next few years, Cairo’s population swelled to 1,000, though in 1840, the London investment firm holding Holbrook’s bonds failed and development immediately froze. Cairo shrunk eighty percent in the subsequent two years, and by 1845, the city had a population of 113.

Exacerbated by frequent flooding, Cairo’s early economic depression put it far behind where it wanted to be as it compared itself to other river cities like St. Louis and Memphis, which were then bustling with antebellum river travel. However, when the Illinois Central Railroad opened in 1855, Cairo saw new growth. The railroad entered Cairo latitudinally from the north and ran atop one of the levees flanking the city, successfully locating Cairo on the line from Chicago to the Gulf of Mexico. When the city officially incorporated in 1858, nearly 1,800 people called it home.

With the Civil War brewing, the Union thus identified Cairo as a strategic location for staging its campaign: Missouri was West across the Mississippi River, Kentucky, East, across the Ohio River, and both Arkansas and Tennessee were less than 60 miles downriver. The US Navy set up base along the Ohio River-side of town and the State of Illinois, along with the US Army, rounded up 2,000 volunteers to build Fort Prentiss at Cairo’s south end, which was then developed by Ulysses S. Grant into Fort Defiance. The New York Times called it, “The Gibraltar of the West.” And by the end of the war, over 40,000 Confederate prisoners had been processed and passed through Fort Defiance.

And, of course, with such close proximity to the South, Cairo also served as a major point of passage for escaped and emancipated slaves. Nearly 3,000 African Americans were living in Cairo by war’s end, and by 1870, with 6,267 people living in Cairo, there was an unusually high ratio of black to white citizens. And by 1900, respondent to continued growth, Cairo’s population had more than doubled, and approximately 5,000 of its 13,000 citizens were black, accounting for five percent of the state’s total black population. But even as Cairo grew, jobs remained competitive, and many local white groups weren’t exactly excited about having an integrated work force. Racial tensions were high.

That Cairo was attached to a Union state was not enough to inoculate racial prejudice. The relationship between economic stress and racial turmoil is often correlative, and though Cairo had grown, its economy was completely reliant on the rail and river industrial infrastructure, and the city itself was betting on the permanence of this industry. Economically, this is like betting the whole bank on red seven at the roulette table; it’s not sustainable. It was in this way that the completion of the Illinois Central Railroad Bridge over the Ohio River in 1889 marked the slow beginning of Cairo’s economic decline, cutting into the city’s prior load of passing as many as 500,000 rail cars per year across the rivers. Ferry traffic slowed, and the completion of a second rail bridge over the Mississippi River in 1905 in nearby Thebes, Illinois, the shipping industry in Cairo took another hard hit.

Growth in Cairo slowed and the city reached its peak population—15,203—in 1902. River barges were growing in size and capability and Cairo was no longer an essential port. And though the city still had an active hotel and restaurant industry, the completion of the Cairo Mississippi River Bridge in 1937 and the Cairo Ohio River Bridge in 1939, allowed travelers between Missouri and Kentucky to completely bypass Cairo. Between 1940 and 1960, Cairo’s population shrunk from 14,407 to 9,348.

Racial violence was a constant. The city was quickly heading towards depression, and with jobs and pay low, it made leaving Cairo just as difficult as staying. And for much of the working-class white population, it was easy to point fingers at the 39 percent of the city that was black. With the Civil Rights movement making waves by the close of the 1960s, Cairo became a hotbed of racial violence. The catalyst: on July 15, 1967, Robert Hunt—a 19-year-old black soldier home on leave—was found hanged from the rafters at the Cairo police station. The (white) police force called it a suicide. The black community called it a murder. Scores of riots broke out, leading the Cairo police to deputize a white citizens force (the “White Hats”) and further propagate violence and enforced segregation.

The violence became so bad that, in 1969, then-Illinois Governor Richard Ogilvie deployed a National Guard outfit to control the violence. Many of Cairo’s already struggling businesses were being protested, and some were burnt down. A ban was instated to prevent protests within twenty feet of business entrances, leading to further violent riots. And then, the completion of the Interstate 57 Bridge over the Mississippi River in 1978 delivered a final blow to Cairo by making passage through the city completely unnecessary. This, complemented by such a volatile social atmosphere, led to another period of flight, and by 1980, Cairo’s population shrunk to 5,931. Amtrak’s City of New Orleans line, which previously had Cairo as a stop, began bypassing the city in 1987—the same year Cairo’s only hospital shut down.

Between 1980 and 2010, Cairo’s population shrunk by an average of 21.9 percent per decade. In 2010, Cairo had an official population count of 2,831, with the ratio of black to white residents 2.5 to 1. Per capita, crime in Cairo is high, but with such high counts of burglary and assault, it’s clear that Cairo’s violence is now a matter of economic depression more than political aggrandizement. A drive down Washington Avenue—Cairo’s main stretch that intersects 8th Street—is like a tour through an apocalyptic movie set; welts of rusted industrial detritus and overgrown commercial debris like wreckage from a bygone era.

Despite Cairo’s ossifying economy, legislature continues to impose itself in the region. In 2010, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed a bill to create an Alexander-Cairo Port District, increasing Cairo’s federal grant eligibility and tax levy opportunities. This may also have been what saved Cairo during the Mississippi River floods in 2011, which rivaled the great floods of 1927, 1937, and 1993. As rising waters threatened to wash out Cairo, the US Army Corps of Engineers blew open a two-mile-wide gap in an earthen levee in Missouri, flooding 200 square miles of farmland and destroying nearly 100 homes. The effort spared Cairo but served as yet another iteration of the role human contrivance has had in obviating Cairo’s otherwise senescent ontogeny.

For better or worse, the story of Cairo is strictly a human story. Like all cities, its tribulations have transpired with nature on mute. It’s easy to wonder where that scalene slice of land would be without two centuries of infrastructure embedded in its swampy soil. When you wander the streets of Cairo today, you see that the violence that once ran rampant in the city has been erased and rendered senseless by the dandelion growing on the windowsill of the crumbling bank.

A view towards our ever-urbanizing future is impossible if our concrete scars—and the stories told be these scars—are completely erased nature’s aggressive incursions. Nature should not be contradicted, but neither should history. An ‘aspirational’ view of the future is suspended between pop-environmentalism and postmodern urbanism; it recognizes the primordial eminence of nature alongside the callow aspirations of ‘civilization.’ Understanding these two concepts thus creates a historically conscious context, allowing us at once to investigate the past and be critical of the present, and in this way, make decisions about the future of our selves, our cities, and the way we treat our dandelions.

[This was an essay I wrote in 2013 for the WOLF Essay Contest. I didn’t win, but the essay isn’t all that bad, I don’t think. Also, I’m pretty sure the contest was some kind of scam.]

[Cover photo by Tourismguy]

By Ben van Loon

Writer, Researcher, Chicagoan

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