CAIRO — Cairo has been called dying, a ghost town, decaying, abandoned and forgotten. It’s often described as the poorest city in Illinois, and possibly one of the most destitute places in America. For people who get their kicks gawking at decay, Cairo has become a popular destination.
A quick Google search brings up countless articles about and photo essays of Cairo’s abandoned buildings. There are several Southern Illinois communities with similar size populations, but Cairo has become the literal picture of decline because much of what was built to sustain a population of about 15,000 — at its peak in 1925 — still stands today in a town of close to 2,500, and shrinking. The city hasn’t had a population above 5,000 since 1990 — for nearly three decades.
Much has been said through time about the reasons for Cairo’s decline. One could write books on each of those reasons — various people already have on several of them. This newspaper also has covered many of those issues in recent months, which is mentioned simply to say there’s nothing easy about the situation facing Cairo. Or more broadly, Alexander County, and the surrounding areas of this deep Southern Illinois region known as Egypt — a nickname from which Cairo and other nearby communities such as Thebes, Karnak and Dongola derive their names.
In more recent history, it is commonly called “Little Egypt” — and many businesses throughout Southern Illinois have adopted this moniker. But that sticks in the craw of old timers who say that “Little Egypt” was a famous belly dancer from Chicago, and the shift from simply “Egypt” an insult to a beautiful reference to neighborly love during a harsh early 1830s winter that wreaked havoc to the north and to the resemblance of the land between Mississippi and Ohio River valleys to Egypt’s Nile Delta.
But that’s the way it goes here, where history is wrapped up in nuances.
Cairo is a city of dichotomy.
It was once the epicenter of Egypt. Today, it faces economic hurdles the size of Mount Catherine. Historically, it is significant in American history for the ways in which it helped free and oppress black Americans over a stretch of more than 150 years. It is a city in the middle of nowhere in a struggling rural region that was once thought of as holding the potential to being the gateway to Middle America.
The city is protected by a 64-foot floodwall and earthen levees, and according to the mayor, who doubles as the interim pastor of the First Missionary Baptist Church, and many others in this deeply religious community — the hands of God.
This is Cairo. It is one of the most studied and least understood cities in downstate Illinois. It is unique in some ways and ordinary in others in telling the American story of how one reaps what one sows. There are lessons to be learned from Cairo, but the people of Cairo ask that those who visit their home to examine what’s gone wrong here do so with compassion and depth.
For Ben Carson, the people of Cairo have a message. As you prepare to travel to Cairo on Tuesday in your role as secretary of Housing and Urban Development, they want you to know that there’s more to Cairo than first meets the eye — more than you will be able to grasp in your few hours on the ground.
If you’re going to shine a national spotlight on this little city, the people of Cairo say they want you to make sure that you take a peek behind the kudzu curtains and look beyond the broken windows and broken dreams of what could have been here, and see the heart of the community that still is. Visit the historical home of Harold Jones and his wife, a Paducah middle school principal, which they have restored into a beautiful community center.
Walk around the medical clinic that CEO Frederick Bernstein has spent decades of his life building and preserving to ensure that people in this part of the country have access to a primary care doctor. Talk to him about his long fight to add on a critical access hospital to offer around-the-clock emergency care.
Visit the school and the Head Start building where on a recent Friday afternoon, children tossed balls and blew bubbles and ran around in the spray of a water hose in the yard, unaware of the worries of the adults managing these programs who are unsure of what the fall will bring.
Almost everyone here knows the problems they face. They are not blind to their own struggles. They understand the near impossible odds before them — how could they not when they are reminded of them by outsiders nearly every day. But they believe anyway.
People still live here. And they work here. They love and hope and dream here. Even those residents prepared to move from Elmwood and McBride — whether eagerly or reluctantly — want something positive to happen here. Because Cairo will always be home base.
This city is filled with interesting and dedicated people who have made a life here, and are trying to make a difference here. Below are a few of their stories.
Dr. Kirk Wong, Associate Medical Director, CHESI
For Dr. Kirk Wong, working as a family doctor at the Community Health and Emergency Services Inc. (commonly called Chesi) Megaclinic in Cairo is a calling. Today, Wong lives in Marion. But he was born and raised in Cairo, where his father moved in 1971 to work for now defunct Southern Medical Center at the corner of Cedar and Pine streets.
The hospital closed in December of 1986. It later became the home of abandoned medications and medical records, squatters and vandals, and some 20 years later was elevated to the status of a Superfund site and finally targeted for cleanup.
In the mid-1980s, Wong said his father, Gemo Wong, transitioned from the hospital to the Chesi medical clinic. At the age of 81, his son said he doesn’t even talk about wanting to retire.
Kirk Wong followed his father’s footsteps into medicine. After graduating from Cairo High School in 1990, he went to Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri, and then to the University of Illinois Medical School in Champaign. After completing his residency at the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine in Springfield, the younger Wong said that when it was time to look for a job, “this was at the top of my list to come back here.”
“Home is always going to be home and an opportunity to serve people you grew up with, it means a lot to me,” he said. “In an under-served area, you get a calling sometimes. … I can take care of people who don’t have the opportunity to get care elsewhere. I kind of feel that God has put me in this spot as well.
“I drive an hour every day to come here and take care of people I grew up with and families I’ve known all my life — and to work next to my dad.”
The elder Wong still resides in Cairo. Kirk Wong said his father was born and raised in the Philippines and came here in the late 1960s as part of a hospital sponsorship program common of the era to help place doctors in areas of need. He said his father trained in the United States at Mercy Hospital on Chicago’s South Side, and then moved to Cairo — and never left. “There was a need. There’s always been a need,” he said.
Many of the children and adults living at Elmwood and McBride are patients of the father-son team, who serve, respectively, as the medical director and associate medical director of the Cairo clinic. Kirk Wong said he has mixed feelings about what should be the outcome of the housing crisis. As a family physician, he sees the effects the poor housing conditions have on his client’s health outcomes, particularly the children. On the other hand, he knows that one’s sense of community also plays into their overall well-being and he worries about people falling through the cracks in another community.
“Honestly, I’m completely torn on the situation,” he said. “I think they all deserve adequate housing to live in — period. And I think we all agree with that — that has to be the bottom line. Whether it happens here, whether it happens elsewhere, it just needs to happen.
“I get scared of how the politics are playing into it and I get scared of how, say we do rehab something here, build something here, can we maintain it and keep it up or does it become a repeat of what we’ve seen already here. I don’t want to see 400 people get picked up and moved out of Cairo — to break up families, or break up community, lose a school, we hurt our clinic. I don’t want to see that. But if it does happen, I hope that they make the most of those opportunities."
Asked what message he would want to convey to Carson if got the chance to meet him, Wong said he would tell him, doctor to doctor, that in Cairo “there are people that deserve better, there are people that deserve better opportunities, there are families that will get broken up as a result of this — I don’t think anybody wants to see that.”
Anedra Collier, McBride resident, Iraq War veteran, SIU senior, single mother of seven
Anedra Collier is a single mother of seven children living at McBride Place.
Growing up, she was one of seven children living with her mom, Loretta Collier. Anedra Collier said that as she became an older teenager, she began to plan for how she would make her escape from life inside the sprawling and decaying housing complex where her family members have lived for decades. She grew up there. Her mom lives there. Her grandmother, great-grandmother and great-great grandmother called McBride home at various times in their lives as well.
Her seven children are the seventh generation in the family to call McBride Place home at one time or another, they estimated.
But she’s ready to move out. She’s anxiously awaiting the Tenant Protection Voucher that HUD has promised residents of McBride and Elmwood as federal officials work to move everyone out and into alternative housing. The vouchers can be used to subsidize rent paid to a private landlord. Collier plans to look for a place in Carbondale, where she’s entering her senior year at Southern Illinois University. She anticipates graduating next May with a bachelor's degree in accounting. After that, she plans to continue on for a master’s degree.
Collier said it’s frustrating that some look down on people in housing and stereotype them as lazy. She said that she also assumes that in agreeing to share her story, that some will make judgmental comments about the number of children she has. But from her perspective, that’s nobody else’s business. She’s doing everything within her power to take care of her family and provide her children an opportunity for a better life than the one she experienced growing up.
Not that it was all bad, she said, but doing better for one's children is what all parents want. And she doesn’t think her six girls and one son, ranging in age from 1 to 12, can have that here.
Collier graduated from Cairo High School in 2002, and signed up for the U.S. Army. She saw it as her ticket out. It was a ticket that also brought her to the front lines in Baghdad as America waged a war in Iraq. Her assignment was that of supply specialist. After her four-year tour of duty, she signed up to serve in the Army Reserves, in which she continues to serve as a drill sergeant.
In life, one must do what they have to do to survive, she said, much like it is in the military protecting America’s freedoms abroad.
“I think they should let the cards fall where they will,” she said. “Let the people go somewhere else.
“It’s most definitely about the kids,” she said. “The school system can only afford you so much but if you’re in a bigger city to have more opportunities, more after-school programs … Like my oldest daughter, I thought she would be really good in gymnastics, but there’s nowhere around here that offers those type of services.”
There’s nothing easy about this transition, she said, but Collier said she supports the decision that HUD announced on April 10 to relocate most people with families from Cairo. She hopes they provide something in Cairo for older citizens who want to stay.
“I feel bad for the senior citizens and people that have mental disabilities and stuff like that. I understand why they don’t want to move. Especially senior citizens because this is where they’ve been their whole life. But anybody else — they should take the opportunity to go.”
Her mom, Loretta Collier, said she’s proud of her daughter and supports her decision to move on. But for her, the idea of leaving is causing her to lose sleep at night. She’s anxious and concerned. She also still has young children and she’s concerned about where they will go if they can’t stay in Cairo.
Her 22-year-old son has a seizure disorder, she said, and the family only recently identified a doctor willing to accept a Medicaid client for a procedure he needs. She doesn’t want to move before that takes place. She doesn’t want to move at all. When her mom died in January 2010, she asked to be moved from her apartment into the one where she grew up with her mom. Collier said she felt connected to the place — it reminds her of her mom — and she didn’t want anyone else living in it. That just wouldn’t feel right.
Asked what she would want to say to Carson if he visits Cairo, Collier said: “I would tell him to put himself in my shoes.” Collier said she does feel like people are listening to her concerns. When Sen. Tammy Duckworth visited recently, she said the senator held her hands and talked to her mother-to-mother and then provided her personal phone number to Collier to call Duckworth if she needed anything.
Anedra Collier said she sympathizes with her mom’s feelings and concerns. But she said there also has to come a point where people get real about what it is they are giving up. Yes, there is a sense of community here, she said, but there is not much in the way of resources.
“The thing about Cairo, and why I think people should get out, is that we don’t have the basic things to live. We don’t have a gas station. We don’t have a grocery store. We don’t have a hospital. Those things are basic things that people need in order to survive.”
She said the only thing that’s been frustrating about the process to her is that she doesn’t know why she hasn’t received her voucher yet.
Roots run deep in Cairo, and in the case of large families, it often means there are relatives connected to all sides of this housing crisis and the domino effect it may have on the community. Loretta Collier’s sister, for instance, is the principal at the high school. She has a brother that works for the housing authority and an uncle who served as mayor prior to the current one.
Another one of her sisters, Terri Childs, also lives in the McBride complex, and like Loretta does not want to leave Cairo. She works as a teacher’s aide at the school and also wonders what may come of her job if the children living in Elmwood and McBride are transferred to other communities, and therefore into other public school districts. “Please come up with a solution to keep us in Cairo,” Terri Childs said is the message she wants to send Carson.
Angie Messmer, Head Start Administrator for Southern Seven Health Department
“What’s happening in Cairo could be classified as a social disaster,” said Angie Messmer. She’s the Early/Head Start administrator for Southern Seven Health Department. From their center in Cairo that sits in front of the Cairo Junior/Senior High School, a staff of 24 full-time workers provide a variety of programs for low-income children and their families. They also provide in-home services.
She’s not sure what will be the future of the center in Cairo. Messmer said she’s pushing forward with the planned opening of Head Start and Early Head Start in a few weeks even though enrollment numbers are uncertain. The school district also provides programs for 0-3 and pre-K children under separate but similar programs funded by the Illinois State Board of Education. In most of the counties throughout the region, the school district and health department, which is federally funded, work closely together to provide a wide range of services to families. Messmer said she hopes that can continue to be the case in Cairo.
The devastating situation playing out in Cairo, she said, “It’s not by the hands of any of the people here. It’s not by the hands of the citizens. It’s not of anybody wanting it. There are a lot of outside factors that contributed to that. And yet the people are the ones paying the price for that, which is very unfortunate.”
Messmer said she and her staff will continue doing what they can to try to find the resources to remain in Cairo to support the families that remain. “We’re trying to make it work,” she said. “but yet, when you have limited resources, limited people it's hard."
Asked what messages she would want Secretary Carson to understand, Messmer said that what concerns her is what will be the future of the residents that remain, which could include families that refuse to go and end up in overcrowded homes of other family members or other inadequate housing situations.
“We track child abuse and homeless rates. Are all things going to increase? I don’t know. That’s what I’m scared of. I’m looking down the road. I see this right here is a problem but I’m looking down the road and wondering what’s going to happen down the road too.”
Regardless, she said, service providers are going to have to pull together to make sure that critical services remain for the children who continue to live here. While many of the children served by Head Start live at Elmwood and McBride, many others live in other housing throughout Cairo and Alexander County.
Messmer said she's worked in the field throughout the lower seven counties of Illinois for 25 years, and been the director for 15 years. She's seen the need for services grow not only in Cairo but throughout the entire region during that time.
"What we've seen during that time is that the families that could leave and had the ability to leave did, but the ones that remain are some of the families that are most in need. And those are the ones that need us most."
Gabrielle Harris, owner G&L Clothing Store, school board member, youth mentor
On Friday afternoon, Kheondray Johnson took his turn waving a sign advertising lemonade for $1 outside a community building in Cairo. One by one, adults flooded in handing dollar bills and occasionally a little extra to Gabriella Lyas who was managing the store inside, filling lemonade cups and keeping track of the cash they were raising.
Johnson, 13, a resident of Elmwood, explained that he and the other young teens — some of them were out on a mobile lemonade unit, were learning about how to run a small business. Johnson said he signed up for the program because he hopes to start his own business one day. He said he doesn’t know what kind, but he does think about it.
For Gabrielle Harris, their mentor, entrepreneurship is the future of Cairo. He understands the hurdles to opening small businesses here because he’s been the owner of G&L Clothing Store, the only retail store other than Dollar General in Cairo, for 13 years. It takes hard work and dedication and young people have to be able to see what’s possible before they reach the age of giving up, he said.
Harris said that’s why he told the teens who are part of his youth entrepreneurship program that they would have to commit to selling lemonade for eight hours, so that they understand that when one starts a commitment she must see it through. Harris said he told the teens, “You have to put a lot into it and I know that you may want to do other things but these are the sacrifices that you make.” The children weren’t just selling lemonade for the sake of it, he said. They had to construct a business plan and budget and afterward, they will review as a team how much they put into the business in supply costs and what they made. Afterward, they planned to talk about what went well and what could be improved on in the future to maximize profits.
“I’ve always been an entrepreneur at heart,” Harris said. “I’m just trying to get our students to look at those characteristic of an entrepreneur.”
Harris said that if he could send Dr. Carson one message, it would be this: “Come here and see what’s truly going on.”
“I mean, you can see pictures or whatever, but to actually come and walk the streets and look around and say, ‘Wow, no grocery store — no grocery store. All of these people are relying on a dollar store for nutrition, those things that are essential.’ You understand that transportation is an issue. So it becomes real. Otherwise it’s on paper what you’re looking at … you don’t get a chance to actually feel it.” Harris said he would like to see the federal government reinvest in new housing in Cairo, or help jump start the economy so that the private development piece can fall into place for partnering to bring in new housing. He’s hopeful that it can.
Tyrone Coleman, mayor, Baptist preacher, former Marine, retired radio show host
From Cairo Mayor Tyrone Coleman’s perspective, God has blessed and protected Cairo. Outsiders keep talking about Cairo’s demise, but from where he sits, what Coleman sees is a Cairo that has persevered — through historical battles for black freedom, through government malfeasance of the past, through the 2011 flood threat, and now, through a housing crisis that has been difficult but from which he is convicted a stronger Cairo will emerge when the dust settles.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that Cairo in the near future is going to, if you will, rebound, and it’s going to be bigger and greater than it’s ever been,” he said. “And I mean that. I mean literally. That’s what keeps me going, man. My prayer used to be, 'Just allow me to be on the ground floor of the turnaround' and not only did God allow me to be on the ground floor. He put me in this seat. Amen.”
Coleman said he doesn’t know all the answers, but he doesn’t let that stop him. He keeps learning, keeps pushing and keeps praying. And God keeps putting people in his path that are able to provide assistance where it’s needed. Among those people, he credited his staff at City Hall. “God has blessed me with some really good people” in the fight to save Cairo, he said. “…being in this seat has allowed me to talk to people, and a great number of those people really want to see Cairo grow.”
Coleman said he was disappointed — angry even — when Secretary Carson, in discussing the housing crisis with U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin during a recent Senate hearing in Washington, called the community "dying" and with limited options. He said he doesn’t understand how Carson could say that without visiting and see what this community has to offer. He blamed Carson’s perspective on false and misleading information fed to him by a top aide and said that if he came to see it for himself, he thinks perhaps Carson would change his mind.
He said recently that he was invited to meet with Secretary Carson in Washington but declined. He said he told them thanks but no thanks, because he believes that Carson needs to be the one to visit Cairo — not the other way around. Coleman said he credits U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, with convincing Carson to visit Cairo this week.
Even though Carson’s comment was upsetting to Coleman, he said he plans to open his door for a conversation with Carson and welcomes the opportunity to show him around town.
Harold Jones, business owner, classically trained violinist, youth mentor
Harold Jones did not grow up in Cairo, and he never thought he would end up living in the town where his parents were born and raised and fell in love. By time he came on the scene, his father, a chemist, had relocated the family to Detroit, where Jones was born and raised.
He is a graduate of Cass Technical High School in Detroit, a school for the gifted and lived and worked in the Detroit area and a variety of other places throughout his adult life. He ended up coming back to Cairo after meeting his now-wife at a social function at church while visiting his elderly mother.
He also said he hopes that Carson comes to Cairo, and that if he does, he spends time not only talking to residents of public housing, but to homeowners in Cairo as well. Jones is an author, composer and the owner of Research Associates, an insurance claim services subrogation business. He was recently named to the board of directors of the Paducah Symphony — the first African-American to hold such a position.
According to Jones, Cairo's survival requires a shift in attitudes. "in order to change the overall attitudes you have to have a change in culture and give children a higher level of expectation through culture diversity," he said.
It’s one thing to acknowledge and then address underlying problems, but it’s not acceptable to continue to dwell in the past, he said. It’s time to move on. Jones said he believes that HUD is making the right decision to tear down Elmwood and McBride and offer families an opportunity to move somewhere else. That doesn’t mean that Cairo will die, he said. There’s nothing wrong with Cairo rightsizing and downsizing, he said. He said there will always be children and a school in Alexander County, but if resources are an issue, he thinks consolidation in the future could be a good thing.
This past school year, Jones sought the help of the Oris B. Hastings Charitable Foundation, managed by attorney John Holland, to secure grant funding to start a violin program at the school. He said school children in Cairo can’t have basketball as the only thing that motivates and inspires them. He doesn’t knock athletics, but “there’s music and art scholarships for college too” he reminds. He’s a classically trained violinist and said his father mandated that he and all his siblings learn an instrument when they were growing up. He wants to pass on the love of music to others.
Jones said that as fellow Detroit residents, he has respect for Carson. “I believe Ben Carson is an honest man,” he said. “I’m optimistic he can do some good.” Jones said it bothers him that so much HUD money has been squandered across the country. He also respects Carson's work in trying to break the cycle of generational governmental dependency. "It is important to use public housing as a hand up and not a hand out," he said.
Jones said that from his perspective, people living in public housing in Cairo and the entire community deserve justice and for the alleged wrongs that were committed related to the misuse or mismanagement of federal housing funds.
Change is hard, but it has to happen or Cairo will fade away. But he sees a bright future for the children that remain. This coming school year, the violin instructor, Rossana Cauti, an SIUC master’s student from Italy, returns to a full slate of students eager to continue their studies, he said.
“In five years, we will have enough classically trained children to have an orchestra,” he said. Jones said Cauti also plans to add a ballet class to the mix of offerings. He said that his hope is that when Carson comes to Cairo, he will spend some time getting to see the many positive changes taking hold "and to understand that there are families that are homeowners in Cairo also and that these homeowners express a passion for the revitalization of the city of Cairo."
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the description of the system that protects Cairo from flooding.
On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI