What Happened to Cairo, Illinois?

I recently read this story on Reddit, the popular social news site:

On Sunday there was a bad car wreck on I-24 near Paducah, KY, which shut the interstate highway for several hours. I was headed from Tennessee to Chicago and made a U-turn to escape the dead-stopped traffic, pulling over several times to let emergency vehicles race past me westbound on the eastbound lanes.

Once I got off I yanked out the map and found an alternative route. And thus for the first time in my life I drove through Cairo, Illinois.

What on earth happened to that city?

The streets were not just deserted, but decimated. The few intact businesses were surrounded on all sides by the abandoned husks of buildings, including a multi-story brick building downtown that had mostly burned down at some point, and which apparently no one thought needed to be knocked the rest of the way down. Right on the main drag.

The only sign of life was a large processing plant on the river bank, which my traveling companion said looked like a rice processing facility. I was going to guess corn, because of the many elevators and football-field sized storage tanks, which looked like they were still serviceable. Practically everything else in town looked like it died.

The top reply on Reddit refers to a photojournalism project at Southern Illinois University called the Cairo Project. I gather the city has a history of race violence, and, starting in 1969, there was a decade-long boycott of white-owned businesses. Wikipedia shows a population decline from a high of 14,407 in 1940 to 3,632 people in 2000.

I did a little more research, and found a speech by Senator Obama from 2005, in which he talks about visiting Cairo on the campaign trail. I also found this Flickr photo pool showing some of the decrepitude. You can also use Google Street View to take a virtual drive down Commercial Avenue to get a sense of the place.

The decline of small towns across the continent is kind of a fascinating tragedy, and one that feels pretty irreversible. Though, maybe there is hope, as here’s a TIME article about the first new business to open in Cairo in four years.

Photo by Dallas Clemons.


  1. Decline of small towns … About 30 years ago, in a class that was, that day, dealing with urbanization, the prof was comparing/differentiating between Canada and US pointed out that a greater percentage of Canadians lived in towns/cities with a population greater than “X”. I can’t remember what “X” was, but it was interesting to me to see the unexpected factoid. I don’t remember anything else about that class … a shame, actually, because she was a good teacher and she deserved better than having to deal with my forgetful little grey cells.

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