Historic Illinois town tilts toward extinction amid public housing crisis
CAIRO, Ill. — This once-bustling port town at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers has faced no shortage of struggles since explorers Lewis and Clark first landed on its muddy shores in 1803.
The city at the southern-most tip of Illinois has endured the persistent threat of flooding, the diminished importance of rivers as a transportation mode, and some of the ugliest racial clashes seen in the north during the Civil Rights Movement.
Now, this historic community of fewer than 2,400 — down from a peak of 15,205 residents nearly a century ago — is in danger of losing about 15% of its population, including about 40% of its public school students, as federal authorities plan to relocate residents from two decrepit public housing developments.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will start the process of relocating about 400 low-income residents living in the Elmwood and McBride apartments by the end of the month, agency spokesman Jereon Brown said. The two low-rise developments built in the early 1940s are ravaged by mold, rodent and cockroach infestations as well as plumbing and electrical problems that housing officials say make the squat World War II-era apartment complexes uninhabitable.
Despite the dismal conditions, some longtime residents at the public housing developments are fearful and angry about the prospect of moving from this storied town that Mark Twain celebrated in his Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, city leaders once boasted as a “Little Chicago” and Union soldiers used as a strategic operating base at the beginning of the Civil War.
“I don’t want to leave and get pushed to live in some big city,” said Earlene Lyons, 52, whose Elmwood apartment was recently damaged by a fire she said was caused by an electrical malfunction in the kitchen. “This is what I know. This is where I feel comfortable.”
For years, HUD has moved away from building sprawling apartment complexes and instead sought to scatter residents relying on government-subsidized housing throughout communities by issuing housing vouchers that are intended to help families rent quality housing through pre-screened landlords in the private market.
In big cities like Chicago, where the last tower of the notorious Cabrini-Green housing project was demolished in 2011, and in Memphis, where the Foote Homes — the city’s last traditional public housing complex — recently shuttered, more low-income housing stock is available within city limits for impacted residents.
Monica Smith, a garden club member and director of the Cairo Public Library, moves a yard sign asking to save Cairo's public housing while trimming the grass in Halliday Park in downtown Cairo. This once-bustling port town at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers has faced no shortage of struggles since explorers Lewis and Clark first landed on its muddy shores in 1803.
Young men play a game of basketball at the Elmwood Apartments in Cairo, Ill.
Cairo Mayor Tyrone Coleman
A For Sale sign stands outside a condemned building in downtown Cairo. The auction price starts at $640.
Angela Mitchell stands in her living room within her home at the Elmwood Apartments in Cairo. She has lived in the apartment for 17 years.
Students in the sixth grade class at Cairo Jr/Sr High School sent letters to HUD Secretary Ben Carson asking to save the town's public housing. In April HUD authorities announced that due to the high cost of fixing the housing hundreds of residents would need to move from the buildings so that the buildings can be torn down.
Mary Beth Goff, sixth grade teacher at Cairo Jr/Sr High School, holds twelve-year-old John Simelton while in class. Goff's class wrote letters to HUD Secretary Ben Carson asking to save the town's public housing.
The Mississippi River Bridge leads from Cairo into Missouri.
Kids play in the grass at the Elmwood Apartments before the school bus arrives.
Doris Lowe, left, and her twin sister Joyce Vallentine, stay in the McBride apartment complex in Cairo. "Everybody out here is upset. Nobody knows where they're going," Lowe said about the situation that residents have found themselves in with the impending closure of the apartment complex.
Pircola Brazil, a sixth grade student at Cairo Jr/Sr High School, holds a copy of the letter that she sent to HUD Secretary Ben Carson asking to save the town's public housing where she lives with her family.
Billboards are overgrown near the southern entrance into Cairo, Ill. along U.S. Route 51.
A vacant building is overtaken by nature at the intersection of 10th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. in Cairo.
An American flag is painted onto a section of a levee wall on the east side of Cairo.
A line of mailboxes outside of the McBride apartment complex in Cairo. Some two hundred families will be relocated from the complex.
This is a large flood gate at the northern entrance to Cairo along U.S. Route 51. A series of levees protect Cairo in case of flooding.
Charles Oats, a Postal Service worker, trims the bushes outside of the Post Office and Court House building in downtown Cairo.
Federal authorities acknowledge the situation in a smaller town like Cairo is more complicated. There are perhaps only a few dozen vacant units in the city that could take in the displaced residents — nowhere near enough to accommodate the 183 households requiring relocation.
In a letter last month to the city’s school superintendent, Andrea Evers, HUD Secretary Ben Carson said a search for viable solutions to preserve affordable housing opportunities within Cairo came up empty. HUD estimates the two housing projects need $7.6 million in repairs and building new housing would cost about $70 million.
The situation, Carson said, is further exacerbated by the fact that the city’s privately operated utilities company charges abnormally high rates — making it impractical to rehabilitate the more than 200 vacant or abandoned properties in Cairo to fill the housing need. Many residents at Elmwood and McBride say they gritted through the deplorable living conditions because utilities were included in their subsidized rent. In privately subsidized housing, they'd likely be responsible for paying their utilities.
“If there was another way to keep … residents in decent, safe, sanitary housing, we’d exercise that option,” Carson wrote.
The federal agency swooped into control of Cairo's public housing in February 2016, taking over for the Alexander County housing agency because of what it called gross mismanagement. At the time of the takeover, HUD said it repeatedly pushed the county agency to fix problems at Cairo, but local authorities did little to address the issues.
Residents say the county agency for years ignored complaints about the deteriorating condition of the housing projects and mismanaged taxpayer funding intended for repairs. HUD’s Office of the Inspector General is investigating the local housing authority’s management of the properties.
Carson’s decision doesn’t sit well with some residents and city leaders, who insist the federal government could do more to help residents who want to remain. They also complain that HUD shares responsibility for the crisis by not doing a better job in its oversight of the local housing authority.
Mayor Tyrone Coleman said he was led to believe ahead of HUD’s announcement last month that the federal housing authority was focusing on rehabbing the developments.
Cairo Mayor Tyrone Coleman (Photo: Brad Vest, The Commercial Appeal, via USA TODAY Network)
“It’s easy to say I’m going to give you a piece of paper, you can go to Timbuktu and you can start your life again,” Coleman said. “We have kids now that are having nightmares over this. They (HUD officials) make it seem so simple, but they go home at night to a comfortable living environment. (HUD’s) negligence is part of the reason why we arrived at this particular place.”
A storied past
Cairo’s fortunes, along with its population, have been on the decline for much of the past century, leaving this community far from its storied, albeit checkered, past. It’s currently a berg without a grocery store, gas station or many places to spend money in its largely vacant and boarded-up downtown.
The city had a star turn in Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which the fictional Jim longed to reach Cairo in his bid to escape slavery. Cairo also played an important role in the Civil War. The city served as General Ulysses S. Grant’s home base early in the war, during a period when he led Union soldiers into battle in neighboring Missouri.
Grant, after serving as the nation’s 18th president, returned to Cairo to be feted at Magnolia Manor—the postbellum mansion owned by his friend Charles Galigher. The businessman developed a strong relationship with Grant during his time in southern Illinois leading the Union army and made a fortune supplying his troops with flour.
These days when visitors come to Cairo to tour the manor they pass through a desolate downtown and streets filled with long abandoned homes covered in a canopy of weeds and vines. In the past five years, the city has seen more than two dozen businesses, five churches and five social service agencies shutter, according to city data. The median home value in the city has fallen to $33,900.
The population decline, which began in 1940s, accelerated as racial strife in the late 1960s came to a boiling point. Cairo became a national symbol of the enduring challenges the country faced as it implemented civil rights reforms.
In 1967, the city endured three days of violent protests following the death of a black U.S. Army soldier, Robert Hunt, 19, who was found hanged in his jail cell. Soon after the unrest, an all-white vigilante group, known as the White Hats, formed.
Tensions continued to simmer the following year as a white pastor clubbed to death a 73-year-old black man who the pastor claimed was attempting to rape his wife. That same year the Illinois Employment Practices Commission opened hearings on racial discrimination at Burkhart Factory, then one of the city’s largest employers, and Little League baseball was discontinued in Cairo to avoid integration of the town’s ballpark.
In the 1980s, a federal judge intervened to make changes to the structure of government to ensure the election of black residents to the city council. Racial tensions heightened again following the fatal shooting by a white officer who fired 14 shots at an unarmed black man, Roy Lee Jones, who was fleeing the scene after scuffling with the cop. The officer, John McDonald, was found guilty of second-degree murder and aggravated assault with a firearm by an all-white jury in a trial moved 50 miles away to Marion, Ill.
Cairo, which remained majority white until the 1980s, is now about 70% African-American, according to U.S. Census data. About 3% of Cairo’s public schools student body is white, said Evers, the district’s superintendent.
'It came to my mind how some things haven’t changed'
With state funding of schools tied to student enrollment numbers, Evers said the district — the largest employer in Cairo with a staff of 78 — is in danger of deep cuts if public housing residents are forced to leave. In the year prior to HUD’s announcement of the Elmwood and McBride closures, Evers said the district lost 89 students — most of whom lived in public housing — leaving the district with fewer than 500 students.
When the decision was made to shutter Elmwood and McBridge, federal housing officials told Cairo leaders that one of the variables in its decision was that both elementary and high school students test scores hover near the bottom of Illinois school rankings, Evers said.
“They said, ‘Why save housing when it would be better to send these families to other communities where there’s jobs and schools that would be better for them,’” Evers said. “But tell me another school where every employee, from the superintendent to the custodian, knows every child by their name and their parent. You can’t put a quantifiable measure on love for a child, and that’s what we have in spades.”
Latrece Brooker, 12, whose family lives in the McBride complex, was among several sixth-grade students who recently wrote to the HUD secretary and asked him to find a way to keep her and other public housing residents in Cairo. Brooker said she recently began to connect Cairo public housing residents' plight to the long-simmering struggles an earlier generation of African-Americans faced.
A line of mailboxes outside of the McBride apartment complex in Cairo. Some two hundred families will be relocated from the complex. (Photo: Brad Vest, The Commercial Appeal via the USA TODAY Network)
“We recently visited the civil rights museum in Memphis, and we saw this protest sign that said ‘We demand decent housing,’” Brooker recalled. “It came to my mind how some things haven’t changed.”
The town has not given up on trying to hold on to as many public housing residents as possible.
The city earlier this week held a landlord fair to recruit property owners to renovate existing housing that they could rent to the soon-to-be-displaced tenants. Cairo officials are also pitching housing development companies to consider building affordable housing in the town.
A group of area residents is also hoping to recruit developers and investors. Shawn Tarver, 43, who is helping lead the movement, said Cairo is worth saving. Tarver, who moved away from Cairo when he was 10 but returned to the city in 2010, said his memories of a tight-knitted community drew him back.
“Cairo’s got so much love you’d think it’s the richest place in the world,” he said.
Shaneka Booth, 26, who has lived at the Elmwood complex for all but one year of her life, said she’s stayed in Cairo’s public housing, in part, because her neighbors felt almost like family members — folks who look out for her and her two children just as her own relatives would. Her own father died when she was 15 and her mother two years after him.
But Booth, who manages a fast-food restaurant about a 40-minute drive away in Cape Girardeau, Mo., said good neighbors only go so far. Her apartment with a rusted bathtub, spreading mold and a leaky ceiling, has become unbearable. She’s already begun the search for housing closer to work in anticipation of the relocation.
“I will miss certain things about my town, but I feel like it’s a chance for me to grow and … let my kids see there is more than just Cairo,” she said.
Follow USA TODAY's Aamer Madhani on Twitter: @AamerISmad