CAIRO, Ill. — The richness of Cairo’s past has given way to the harshness of its present. Now comes what may be the most difficult stage: the uncertainty of its future.
There still is hope in this town steeped in history. Situated at the southernmost point of Illinois, Cairo is enduring a long, slow slide from its status as a bustling city to being one of the poorest rural communities in the state.
Eddie Price has witnessed his home town’s slow death for decades. Born and raised in Cairo, he knows residents here who are resigned to a life of poverty.
“Some have put themselves to the point where that’s it for them,” Price said. “They don’t have that push anymore.”
At one time, nearly 16,000 people lived in Cairo. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates its population today at about 2,400.
It is the seat of Alexander County which, according to the Chicago-based Heartland Alliance, is the poorest county in the state with a 28.6 poverty rate.
Cairo is far removed from its heyday as an important Union Army base during the Civil War, and as the destination of Huck and Jim in the classic Mark Twain novel “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
Majestic mansions from the post-war period stand proudly alongside historically rich buildings such as the U.S. Customs House listed on the National Register of Historic places. But boarded-up storefronts, deteriorating homes and weedy lots are in much more abundance.
The drop in riverboat traffic and development of the interstate highway system ushered in a slow decline for the community, strategically located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. Race riots in 1969 that prompted the governor to send in National Guard troops hastened the out-migration.
Today the problem is lack of opportunity. There are few jobs in Cairo, and many residents are stuck in the cycle of poverty that has spanned generations.
The latest blow is a scandal involving the Alexander County Housing Authority that has gotten attention at the federal level.
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson recently announced that Cairo’s dilapidated and pest-ridden federal housing units are beyond restoration. HUD is giving residents notice they must soon move out of the units. How many will remain in Cairo is unknown.
“They took all the businesses away from here. Now they want to take the family homes,” said one woman, who declined to give her name. “People lived here all their life. They don’t know anything else.”
Tiffany George, executive director of the Southern Five Regional Planning District and Development Commission, said the loss of so many residents could spell the end of Cairo.
“This is uncharted territory, with the potential loss of the housing development projects there,” George said. “… If you remove 50 percent of the student body population, what will happen is yet to be seen.”
George said that of the five counties served by her organization, all but one had a population decline over the past five years. Like many, she points a finger in the direction of Illinois politicians. Many — including Gov. Bruce Rauner — believe high workers compensation rates, burdensome regulations and inequitable school funding are pushing businesses out of the state and, in turn, stunting economic growth.
“The state has not been as friendly as some of the states bordering us,” George said. “It’s very easy to go to Kentucky or Missouri. It’s not difficult, from a supplier and customer standpoint, to move the business and not have to deal with regulations and red tape.”
Christopher Merrett sees changes in the agricultural industry as one factor in the lack of economic opportunity across rural Illinois. The director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs maintains that the shift to larger farming operations has had the unintended consequence of depressing the rural economy.
“One of the drivers of out-migration has been agricultural productivity,” Merrett said.
“We need fewer and fewer farms, but bigger farms producing more and more. The impact of that has been depopulation for rural areas. That in itself is a struggle for the non-farm rural economy, and it’s another factor driving the poverty rate.”
But some do care. Cary Minnis, executive director of the Greater Egypt Regional Planning and Development Commission, hasn’t lost hope in the region surrounding Cairo.
“I’m an optimistic guy,” Minnis said. “I see there are quite a bit of good things that are happening. It’s not all doom and gloom.”