Cairo comeback

Mayor Tyrone Coleman seeks revival as rising tide lifts all boats

By Ted Cox

Cairo Mayor Tyrone Coleman knows his town can revive to be a vital force in trade, commerce, and culture. He knows because he’s seen the town humming like that himself.

“When I grew up here, this was like the hub of the tristate area,” said the 69-year-old Coleman. “Everybody came here to shop, (for) entertainment — all that stuff. We ended up like we are now. We’re coming out, but we didn’t get here overnight and we’re not coming out overnight.”

The southernmost town in Illinois, Cairo (pronounced CARE-oh) has suffered through what Coleman himself admits is 98 years of uninterrupted population decline to its current count of 2,400. Yet it has seen ups and downs before, and Coleman, completing his second term as mayor, already feels things changing for the better.

“The pendulum, I really think, is swinging,” he said. “Cairo is like a microcosm of these whole United States,” as a resilient small town trying to avoid being swept away.

“It was fun,” he said. “It was just a great place to grow up in. Never a dull moment. I’m just yearning for it to be that way again, and I’m sure it will. I’ve just always wanted to be part of that turnaround.”

As a river town at the confluence of the Ohio and the Mississippi, Cairo has lived through boom and bust before. Not unlike Chicago, though, even in its early boom times it had an unsavory reputation. No less an authority than Charles Dickens was repulsed by it in the 1840s, calling it “a breeding place of fever, ague, and death … a dismal swamp on which half-built houses rot away, teeming with rank, unwholesome vegetation in whose baleful shade the wretched wanderers who area tempted thither droop and die and lay their bones … a slimy monster, hideous to behold, a hotbed of disease, an ugly sepulcher, a grave uncheered by any promise; a place without a single quality in earth or air or water to commend it; such is the dismal Cairo.”

Bear in mind, though, Dickens had already lost an investment in Cairo bonds that had been declared worthless, so he had an ax to grind.

Cairo revived from that, however, to become the headquarters for Gen. U.S. Grant in the Civil War, where he launched his offensive into the South. It was helped along the way by levees built in 1858 with the backing of the Illinois Central Railroad, and which keep the city dry even in the highest floods today. (Coleman pointed out the city hasn’t flooded in 160 years.) Like Chicago, even in boom times it was rowdy, with a reputation for loose liquor and women. It maintained its literary fame, though, as it was the goal to get to freedom for Huck and Jim in Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” and Edna Ferber used it as a model for the town in what became the source material for the musical “Showboat.” More recently, Neil Gaiman used it as a location for “American Gods,” and Barack Obama cited it in "The Audacity of Hope" before he was elected president.

Coleman recalled it during his lifetime as a major stop on the so-called Chitlin Circuit for African-American entertainers, and as a way station for blues musicians making the Great Migration to Chicago. It still holds a blues festival each September.

But for much of the 1900s, it was subject to overt Jim Crow segregation. Coleman and town historian Preston Ewing, former president of the local NAACP, said it was the last town to benefit from the civil-rights movement, after towns in the South and major cities in the North had already come to terms with the fight for racial equality.

Some attributed the town's decline to that racial turbulence, but don't go blaming the victims. A 1982 legal paper on "The Cairo Experience," written by Michael Seng and published in the Oregon Law Review, made clear that a boycott of local white-owned businesses was intended to fight employment discrimination, and that in the ensuing racial strife, in which local law enforcement was complicit with white racists, "it appeared that the white community would suffer bankruptcy or even total annihilation of the town rather than try to come to terms with the black community."

Also critical, from a purely economic standpoint, was the way the Illinois Central came to a literal and then metaphorical end in Cairo, while Interstate 57, which replaced it, for the most part bypassed Cairo, with the only exit on the outskirts of town.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin has his own story about Cairo.

"I was fresh out of law school, went to work for Lt. Gov. Paul Simon," Durbin recalled in a recent interview with Chicago Alderman Ameya Pawar, founder of One Illinois. "He says your first assignments are your hometown of East St. Louis and Cairo. Those are pretty heavy assignments," he added, especially at the time in the late '60s and early '70s.

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"Cairo was engaged in a civil-rights struggle that ultimately destroyed the community."

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

"Cairo was engaged in a civil-rights struggle that ultimately destroyed the community," Durbin said. "There is no question there was racism in the governing structures of Alexander County and Cairo."

He laid much of the blame on Alexander County prosecutor Peyton Berbling, saying, "He was not only state's attorney, he was the chairman of the White Citizens' Council. That's a spruced-up, cleaned-up version of the Ku Klux Klan.

"Well, what happened afterwards was devastating," Durbin added. "The blacks in Cairo decided to boycott local businesses," to compel fair hiring. "They closed them down, and the hospital too. Pretty soon, there was an exodus in population, and now there's just a handful of people left in that community. They don't have a grocery store. ... They are really being isolated and their existence is being threatened."

“I never thought we’d be a food desert,” Coleman said. “Some people have been taking advantage of it,” he added, charging Draconian fees to drive people to the nearest stores. “It’s been overwhelming to this community,” he added. “It’s been overwhelming to me, because there’s nothing I can do about it.”

Even so, for those who remain, Coleman said that today “this is probably one of the friendliest places in these whole United States. It’s just a really friendly community.”

Much of it indeed was swept away by time. The Halliday Hotel, cited by the “WPA Guide to Illinois” in the ‘30s as Grant’s Civil War headquarters and as home to Grant’s Bar, burned in the ‘40s. More recently, abandoned buildings that threatened to turn Cairo into a blighted ghost town were razed and removed to create a clean slate to build on, much as in Detroit. Yet the town has retained the infrastructure foundation to sustain it, including a customs house, an Art Deco National Guard armory, and a glorious wood-paneled library, as well as many of the well-maintained mansions on Washington Avenue, once known as “Millionaire’s Row.”

 Riverlore was an abandoned mansion considered a white elephant when owned by Cairo, but it's being sold to a town native. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Riverlore was an abandoned mansion considered a white elephant when owned by Cairo, but it's being sold to a town native. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Coleman said Cairo also got a sign of life recently when a mansion it had rashly taken ownership of in the 1990s, Riverlore, was bid on for purchase.

“It’s gorgeous on the inside,” Coleman said. “Needs a lot of work on the outside. But it’s just beautiful.”

It’s being bought, he added, by a woman who’s a Cairo native. “She’d walk by it and say, ‘One day I’m going to own this house,’” Coleman said. “And it seems as if she’s going to live out that wish.”

That significant and symbolic gain, however, has to be weighed against the total failure of public housing under the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. According to Coleman, inspections of the projects were rubber-stamped for years until the buildings were suddenly found to be unsafe and unlivable. HUD Secretary Ben Carson called Cairo “a dying community” before deigning to visit last year.

“I was angry about that,” Coleman said. “At that time, he had not been to Cairo. He did not know anything about Cairo but what he had been told. If anything, he should be about lifting people up, not tearing them down.”

Carson’s initial response was to offer public-housing vouchers to former residents, which only encouraged more people to leave town. According to Durbin, about a third have relocated locally, "but others have to move far away." He called it "outrageous" that more recently Carson has proposed actually raising rents for federal housing.

Yet the spotlight shined on Cairo by the housing crisis may have a dramatic effect for the better in the end. Both Durbin and U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth have taken an interest in Cairo, co-sponsoring the Creating American Investment, Redevelopment, and Opportunity (CAIRO) Task Force, which if enacted would call for government investment and reports on its progress.

"We want the housing units down there to be livable and they're not," Durbin said. "We want the people who are being displaced from those terrible units to have a place to live," he added. "They need the basics."

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"We don’t want a handout, just a hand up."

Cairo Mayor Tyrone Coleman (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Coleman urged an economic emphasis on river transportation as an alternative to truck traffic, with Cairo as a natural hub where the Ohio meets the Mississippi. “We don’t want a handout, just a hand up,” he said. “Just be more conscious that we’re here, and earmark some of those businesses for this end of the state. We’re people too. We’re part of this state.”

State Sen. Dale Fowler, of Harrisburg, has recently made progress on a bid to build a port in Cairo on the Ohio River side.

It’s worth noting that, like Cairo, Coleman has already come back himself. He left his native town to attend Southern Illinois University, then, faced with the draft during the Vietnam War, joined the Marines. Once he left the military, he lived four years in Southern California before returning home for what he thought was a brief vacation.

“And what I saw caused me to change my mind about going back to California,” Coleman said.  Always devoted to public service, and seeing the need for involvement in his hometown, he decided, “I might as well do it here at home. It’s just who I am. What I thought was a vacation, 34 years later I’m still here.”

Elected mayor in 2011, he’s finishing a second term and, most likely, looking to run for a third next year.

“I’ve seen how life can be better here, because I grew up in an era when it was better here,” Coleman said. “It’s my belief that it can be that again, and greater and better than it was even when I grew up here.”