Every morning about 2 o'clock, the "train they call the City of New Orleans" rolls south through Cairo with its indomitable "Good morning, America, how are you?" "Not so good" might be the reply from the town at the southernmost tip of Illinois, where the mighty rivers meet. It is Cairo's turn to say, "Don't you know me? I'm your native son."
Native son, indeed. It is here at Cairo that the first rails of the Illinois Central were laid in 1851, in a grand nation-building plan to link Cairo and Galena with a branch off to the promising port city of Chicago. Now Amtrak doesn't even stop here anymore. You have to drive 50 miles north to Carbondale or 50 miles south to Fulton, Ky., just to get on the train. Cairo thrived during the Civil War, and Ulysses S. Grant had his headquarters here for a time. By the late 19th century, people had begun to see Cairo as the river hub of the nation, and a General Carr predicted, "Someday Cairo will be the largest city on the continent." Cairo did prosper, but the city peaked at a population of 21,000 in the 1920s. Last week, the guide at Magnolia Manor, one of the town's magnificent Victorian mansions, noted wryly, "Cairo has been on a steady decline ever since the invention of the airplane and the automobile."
More is at work here, however, than justhistory passing quietly by. There has been aggressive deterioration. "Not so long ago, we had a nice town here," says Russell Ogg, a lifelong resident. "Now it's gone down to practically nothing." A drive around town shows the decline. The ruins of burned-out buildings have been left standing. Dozens of houses are for sale. The old factory site is grown up in weeds. Commercial Avenue, the old downtown, is a ghost town of empty, crumbling buildings. The sign at the entrance to town still says 4,800, but the 2000 census put Cairo's population at just 3,632.
Cairo is the seat of the poorest county in Illinois. Alexander County has 26.1 percent of its population living below the poverty line, the highest poverty rate of the state's 102 counties. Between 1990 and 2000, it had the highest percentage population loss of any county, 9.75 percent. Its unemployment rate for September 2003 was 11.8 percent, the highest in Illinois. Cairo and Alexander County may be the worst, but many of the rural counties of southern Illinois are experiencing poverty at rates well above the state average. "Rural Illinois is experiencing greater and greater declines in its well-being, growing barriers to economic viability, and increasing disadvantage for economic and human development," says a report published by the Heartland Alliance for Human Needs.
"We can do better." That was the theme of the Illinois Rural Poverty Summit, held Dec. 1 in Springfield and sponsored by a coalition of groups, including the office of Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn. In the keynote address, Quinn emphasized the need for all of Illinois to work toward the elimination of rural poverty. Cairo is struggling valiantly, but it needs help from Springfield and Washington. "We have to be a community of shared values," Quinn said. He wants to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit, index the minimum wage to the cost of living, keep state deposits out of institutions making payday loans, increase energy assistance, and reduce "phonelessness." Conference participants discussed proposals for better housing, health care, and transportation in rural areas. Eliminating poverty, the summit concluded, is an investment in Illinois' future.
It is also a way to respect the past. Cairo has hosted presidents and hidden runaway slaves. It has been home to barbecue and the blues. The town is rich in African-American history. Its architecture is as pleasing as it is endangered. The citizens of Cairo aren't looking for a return to the glory days, but they do need a grant to demolish the old asbestos-plagued hospital. With some help and some luck, Cairo could become a nice bedroom community for the surrounding larger towns. And with some imagination and creativity, who knows? It might become much more. On his 1996 visit there, President Bill Clinton called Cairo "the confluence of America." Where people, ideas, and history come together.