Perhaps the only fate worse than being an abandoned city is being the suburb of an abandoned city, but such is the fate of the community just north of Cairo, Illinois known as Future City. Located outside the protective floodgates and levees, the all-Black community of Future City floods frequently, and has only one real landmark, a two-story night club or juke joint that on closer inspection seems to be an old and rather historic building that was probably intended for a different purpose, perhaps a Masonic lodge or a school. The reason for the name is uncertain, although there are some accounts that attribute the village’s founding to African-Americans who fled Cairo in the wake of the 1909 lynching of Will James. At least one white youth growing up in Cairo admitted many years later that as a boy he had always thought that the sign meant that people were planning to build a city there, and that he was wondering when it would ever be finished!
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.
I had only been to Hickman, Kentucky on one previous occasion, back when I was in college at the University of Tennessee at Martin. It had been the closest Mississippi River town to the campus, and I drove up there one evening to see it, and ended up eating a hamburger at a bar on the main street of the downtown, Clinton Street. I recalled it as a sort of romantic spot, with an old and historic courthouse high up on the bluff above the old downtown, which was starting to be abandoned due to river scouring of the bluff on which the downtown area sat. At least part of Clinton Street had been barricaded off, and the folks in the bar and grill told me that the area had had to be abandoned due to the instability. That would have been in April of 1987, and I was curious to see how Hickman looked nowadays. In some ways, things had changed for the better, or at least one thing had, in that the Corps of Engineers had received funding to stabilize the bluff, which they did. The project also resulted in a beautiful overlook of the swamps and Mississippi River at a distance, and there’s no better place to park the car and shoot some photos, or just enjoy some peace and quiet. At the highest point of the bluff, I also found that the historic and beautiful Fulton County Courthouse was still standing and in good condition. But down the bluff in the old downtown, things had changed only for the worse. There was no trace of the old bar and grill where I had eaten back in 1987, and nearly every storefront which remained on Clinton Street was vacant. Many vacant lots were places that I seemed to have recalled being buildings when I was last there, and at least one wall was crumbling into a pile of bricks. There were two abandoned law offices, one with legal books still scattered all over the room visible through the windows, a City of Hickman redevelopment office which seemed something of a cruel joke (for it seemed to need redeveloping itself), and an intriguing building called the LaClede Building, big enough to be a hotel, and with a bizarre keyhole-shaped front entrance that I had never seen on any other building. At the convenience store on the outskirts of town, I tried to ask the young man at the cash register what had happened to Hickman, particularly the downtown area. His answer was simply, “There’s never been much here. We’re a poor city, you know.” I left feeling that more needed to be investigated. The next town of any size upriver is Cairo, Illinois, and the conventional wisdom about Cairo is that it was decimated by the racial war and the Black boycott of businesses between 1969 and 1972, but the similar condition of Hickman, Kentucky, where there was (as far as we know) no dramatic racial conflict or rioting suggests that the decline of river towns might have been inevitable and unpreventable rather than something caused by extraordinary events like those Cairo experienced. At any rate, Hickman is rapidly crumbling, and deserves a better fate. With Clinton Street properly restored, Hickman could become a popular stop on the riverboat vacations, and also a tourist destination, but it will require both vision and money, and Hickman seems to be short on both.
On the Ohio River northeast of Cairo, Illinois. Unlike the Mississippi, the Ohio River has a number of locks and dams that maintain a 9-foot channel at all points along the river. A new massive one is under construction above the town of Mounds, Illinois. 8/20/12
At the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers sits Cairo, Illinois, a historic river town that the cruise lines no longer visit, at least in part because of complaints from passengers. Cairo today is nearly a ghost town, its broad Commercial Street almost completely razed. What few buildings remain are largely abandoned, and passengers disliked the eerie feel of the town built to house 20,000 people where only 3000 reside today. With such historic buildings as Riverlore mansion, built in 1865, the Customs House museum, or Fort Defiance, which is directly at the confluence, Cairo still has some points of interest, but the town is largely in shambles due to a eight-year shooting war between its white and Black communities from 1967-1975. Blacks refused to buy from Cairo businesses as a matter of principle. Whites preferred to shop where there weren’t fires, bombings and snipings, so they also stayed away, and the end result was that nearly every restaurant and retail business closed. In recent years, there have been efforts to rejuvenate the town, and to heal race relations in Cairo, but the lack of jobs and the extreme poverty have thwarted efforts at any renaissance. The historic buildings on Commercial Street, neglected since the 1960’s, have collapsed one by one. Furthermore, while the picketing, marching, boycotting and shooting stopped in the early 1970’s, the mysterious fires did not, and buildings and houses continue to burn in Cairo, under circumstances that suggest that multiple arsonists may be at work. Cairo is a sad story, a cautionary tale to America of what happens when people are stubbornly racist and refuse to reconcile.