The demographics tell a too-common story of heartland decline: nearly half the kids living under the poverty line, about as many single mothers as married parents running a household, only seven men for every ten women (men get scarce when the money gets low). But in other ways Cairo is far from common. It’s flat, marshy, hot, kudzu-grown, more Southern than Midwestern. The whole town was evacuated three years ago when the rivers rose. The weather, the floods, the plants, and time have brought a lot of it down. What remains of the old city are like islands in a rising lake.
And yet, people do live there. A lot of them in a large, spare, rectangular housing project that looks nearly as lonely as a silo on the prairie; others in cheap rentals at the edge of town, government-assisted units scattered among them; some in the old “Millionaires’ Row,” now a quiet, middle-class neighborhood of hundred-year-old houses in various states of renovation and decay; a few in the shrinking downtown, where houses are one by one abandoned and left to fall.
Some of those people are fighting hard to keep the town alive. I saw a lot of people out mowing lawns, even on half-abandoned blocks. There were relics of one effort after another to turn empty walls into mural galleries or call attention to some historic block. And right in the middle of the jungled depths of the old downtown, I stumbled on a mansion that someone had obviously just recently given a complete and stunning renovation, down to a gas lamp in front and fountains bubbling in the garden. (I asked around and was told it was a gay couple from out of town.)
I’m not quite sure, really, what it all means to me and why I think about it so much...but I took some pictures. Scroll about halfway down, to the close-up of the pedestal of the lonely statue called the Hewer, installed in what was then the middle of a bustling downtown. “Presented to the city of Cairo in token of his unswerving faith in her destiny.” It was the still, bronze faith of that mighty but immobile man that I kept thinking about on the road back to Chicago.