Cairo, IL: The Price of Racial Conflict?

ghost towns, Photography

The decline and near abandonment of Cairo, Illinois has been well-discussed and well-documented, as to some extent has what Ron Powers called its last great civic event, a four-year shooting war between its white and Black communities from 1967 to 1971. Perhaps no place in America suffered as protracted and violent a racial upheaval as Cairo, and the conventional wisdom is that these tragic years of shootings, arsons and boycotts destroyed the town. But as I saw earlier in the afternoon at Hickman, Kentucky, things just aren’t that simple. Hickman experienced none of the fire bombings, snipings, marches or boycotts that wracked Cairo, yet its downtown ended up looking largely the same as Cairo’s, which raises the important question as to whether Cairo experienced the severe racial conflict it did BECAUSE it was dying, rather than dying because it experienced the racial conflict. Perhaps it would be fairer to say that the conflict hastened the processes that were already occurring in Cairo. Either way, what has happened since is in every way a tragedy. Very little of Commercial Avenue remains at all, compared to 1987, when some of the buildings were still occupied and nearly all of them were standing. The city also seems devoid of people these days, compared to my visits back in my college days, when one could find pickup basketball games on side streets off of Washington Avenue. Most night clubs are gone from Commercial Avenue, although several remain, a rap club called Club Elite, a lounge called Mary G’s and something called the Cavalier Club. I didn’t even see many people in either of the city’s projects, the McBride Court (formerly Pyramid Court, which had been the scene of so much shooting in the 1970’s) or Elmwood Court. The boarded up Bennett School (which had been called Booker T. Washington prior to integration) was simply another sad and depressing sign of the town’s decline, as were the abandoned newspaper office, abandoned nursing home and abandoned hospital. What economic decline and racial conflict didn’t do, flooding did, with the most recent flood occurring in 2011. Arguably flooding has discouraged industry from locating in Cairo, and furthered the town’s death. While one views the ruins with a certain degree of shock and horror, and feels that something should be done to preserve what is left, it is likely that nobody will. Frankly nobody cares outside of Cairo, and chances are that few even care within Cairo. Probably there will soon be nothing left at all.

Abandoned Warehouse Fire in South Memphis


As the column of smoke from the north of the Stax Museum grew blacker, higher and more dense, people could no longer ignore it. A number of young people began leaving the festival and walking north past the LeMoyne-Owen College campus, fearing that perhaps their houses or the houses of people they knew might be on fire. The fire certainly looked to be in the former LeMoyne Gardens area, but as we walked in that direction, we could see that it was further north. It proved to be beside the railroad tracks across from Elmwood Cemetery, and was an old abandoned warehouse. A man came and explained to us that the fire had possibly started when a railroad car’s wheels threw up a spark that ignited the building. Unfortunately, the fire had spread to a lumber car on the nearby train that had started smoldering, which was a more serious problem than it seemed, because other cars on the train were tank cars containing highly-flammable liquefied petroleum, and if they had ignited, the whole neighborhood could have been levelled. As it was, he said he had called the Burlington Northern railroad, and they had sent two engines out to move the cars away from the fire, which by now had attracted 80 or so curious onlookers including a number of kids. People were telling us that the smoke could be seen all the way from Poplar and White Station. Just at that point, a Civil Defense truck pulled up and told us to get away from the area, because they didn’t know exactly what was burning inside the warehouse, and that it could be some kind of chemical. Also, he said that if the fire reached either of two electrical transformers, it could send projectiles across the tracks to where we were standing. So I began to back away, but many others seemed reluctant to leave. We later heard that three teenagers had been seen running from the building shortly before it burst into flames.

What’s Left of Waterford, Mississippi

ghost towns, History, Photography

Waterford, Mississippi in Marshall County is the nearest town to the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic, if indeed it can be called a town at all. It was formerly a railroad depot on the Mississippi Central Railroad that ran from Holly Springs to Oxford, and there was, judging from what is left, a sort of main street and business district along the railroad. Like so many Mississippi communities, very little remains, although there is still a post office, a couple of churches and some residences.

6/22/09: From Evansville to Bloomington to Indianapolis

Bands, entertainment, music, Record Stores, records, Restaurants, Shopping

With Jojo’s gone, I had few breakfast choices, so I headed to the First Avenue Diner. a former Steak N Egg Kitchen that had decent breakfast, and then I rode around to the FYE at the mall, where the manager let me put up posters. From there, I headed out of town along I-64, having trouble finding any gas stations along the way. I ended up having to pay $2.90 for regular at a general store in Sulphur, and then I headed north along Highway 137.
At English, Indiana, I was intrigued by the blocks of city streets with sidewalks that were completely bare and devoid of any buildings at all, and I wondered what kind of disaster had struck the little town. The downtown was old and largely abandoned, and the only buildings and signs of life I had seen were on the high hills at the southern edge of town.
In Bedford, I stopped at a Karma Music store there, and soon I came into Bloomington, where I rushed over to the Ars Nova antiquarian sheet music store. I bought a few pieces of sheet music there, and then I stopped by Tracks Music to drop off posters and promos. After a latte at Soma Coffeehouse down the block, I drove over to Landlocked Music, and then continued on toward Indianapolis.
When I got into Marion County, I drove over on Southport Road to a shopping area where there was a restaurant called Cheeseburger in Paradise, owned by Jimmy Buffett. Although the weather was hot, the restaurant was having a bikers rally, and everybody was sitting outside on the patio. I thought there would be quite a wait, but I managed to get right in, and had a delicious hamburger for dinner before heading around I-465 to Rick’s Boat Yard to catch the jazz trio there. There, in the lakefront setting, people were sitting out on the deck, watching the sun go down over the reservoir, but the recession had taken its toll there as well, with the trio reduced to a guitar and bass duo, and my drummer friend Lawrence gone. From there, I drove to my hotel, the University Place hotel on the campus of Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis, known as IUPUI. Although I had to pay for parking, the setting was close to downtown, yet quieter, and the room was quite luxurious.