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Thursday, November 2, 2017  |  Article  |  By Molly Parker, The Southern Illinoisan

Crime (28) , Economic Development (35) , Housing (51) , Poverty
The Southern seeks reader feedback on economic conditions in deep Southern Illinois

CAIRO — The housing crisis in Cairo has generated a lot of discussion about what happened to Illinois’ southernmost city. But the regional economic crisis the housing situation has thrust into the limelight — again — is not unique to Cairo, or Alexander County.

Over the next few weeks, photographer Richard Sitler and I will be traveling the lower seven counties of Illinois to explore the economic situation plaguing much of southernmost Southern Illinois. It’s a timely conversation as we approach the one-year anniversary of President Donald Trump’s swearing-in.

The president’s campaign promises to help rural America helped catapult him to the White House. Though Illinois is a blue state, he was overwhelmingly supported over Hillary Clinton outside of Cook County. In Southern Illinois, many voters expressed that their enthusiastic support was in large part over hopes for an economic revival for rural areas and small towns.

Interestingly, one of the first major decisions of his administration affecting rural America was Housing and Urban Development’s decision to relocate several hundred people from Cairo rather than build new housing in the economically destitute city. This issue brought HUD Secretary Carson to town in August.

During an interview with the newspaper, he committed to speaking with the president and other members of the Agriculture and Rural Prosperity Task Force about the economic potential he saw in the region. Carson is among members of the task force created by executive order of the president in April; it is chaired by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. U.S. Sens. Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin also wrote a letter to the president, asking that he convene a federal task force on Cairo given HUD’s culpability in the city’s housing crisis. No word yet on whether any of those things have happened, or are going to happen.

As anyone who has lived in or passed through this region, known as southernmost Southern Illinois, understands, it is a place of great natural and architectural beauty starkly juxtaposed by extreme poverty. We hope this Tour de Seven — to borrow a phrase from the Southern Seven Health Department’s annual 5K — is both enlightening and helpful, for explaining the predicaments facing many rural Illinois people living in or near the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys, and in identifying forward-looking solutions.

I also encourage readers to reach out to me with suggestions for places we should visit, or things we should know. My email is molly.parker@thesouthern.com and my phone number is 618-351-5079.

The story will focus on the counties of Alexander, Pulaski, Hardin, Pope, Johnson, Union and Massac. In the meantime, I thought I’d kick off this series, and this conversation, with some notable quotes about Cairo and Alexander County.

“There are too many kids walking across the stage, getting their diplomas, and the Army recruiter is there, waiting to take them to basic training the next day."
– Then-Cairo Mayor Judson Childs, as quoted in a Los Angeles Times article published on Jan. 8, 2009, titled “Road to the inauguration: For this town, it’s been all upstream.”


“I don’t think people understand how bleak rural poverty can be.”

– Erin Malone, of Brooklyn, originally of Tamms, in a November 2016 column she wrote for the The Nation titled, “Urban and Rural America Are Connected by Economic Refugees Like Me.”

“I think by the grace of God it’s possible to save this place as well.”
– HUD Secretary Carson, Aug. 8, 2017, speaking about Cairo’s economy to public housing residents at the Cairo/Junior Senior High School gymnasium. Carson was explaining how, as a pediatric neurosurgeon, he often took on challenging cases and helped turn around children’s lives when others thought there was little hope. He had been criticized previously for calling Cairo a “dying community” during a Senate hearing in Washington.


“God is great and God is good, but he’s never gonna save this town. The way I see it, there’s two ways out, we can dry up or drown.”
– Evan Webb and the Rural Route Ramblers, from the song “Dry up or Drown, from the 2016 country album by the same name.


The supermax prison in Tamms will be “an anchor to help this part of the state move ahead and have a bright future as we enter the 21st century.”
– Former Gov. Jim Edgar, as quoted in The Southern Illinoisan, as he announced in the mid-1990s that Alexander County was chosen as the site for the state's first super maximum security prison, intended to reduce staff assaults. The prison later came under fire from prisoner rights' groups for its harsh conditions and was closed less than 15 years after it opened.    


“Why don’t we do away with Chicago, you know? I’m just about there. I’m about ready to cut them off and push them right out in the water. Put Pat Quinn right on nose of the boat and push him right out in the water.”
– Former state Sen. Gary Forby, speaking in Tamms after Quinn proposed shutting down the “supermax” in 2012, via Illinois Statehouse News video and Capitol Fax.


“Ain’t much traffic through the old downtown, since the state went and shut the prison down. Oh, and hope left here on a prison bus. I guess this town isn’t good enough for the worst of us.”
– Evan Webb and the Rural Route Ramblers, "Dry up or Drown"


“We’re back on the trail again,”
– Then-mayor-elect and Alexander County Housing Authority director James Wilson, as quoted in a May 1991 issue of The (Bloomington) Pantagraph. The story was titled “Cairo’s optimism hits rough water” and was about the city’s attempts to secure a riverboat casino license from the state, which it never did.

The story continues, “Even that, however, wouldn’t solve all of Cairo’s problems,” including a “most immediate” problem that involved an investigation by the State Board of Elections and FBI of the election that had just named Wilson mayor, prompted by citizen complaints alleging fraudulent registrations and improprieties involving absentee ballots. That investigation did not lead to charges.

“It’s nothing unusual for elections to be contested down here rather vigorously.”
– Wilson, as quoted in that same article, responding to the investigation.


“Money cigarettes and whisky, I’m holding out for all three… If you want me to vote three times, Lord, it don’t make no difference to me. …It don’t matter who wins; I just don’t give a damn. Cause whoever wins is beholden to the big man.”
– Stace England’s song “Buy My Votes” from the 2005 rock album, “Greetings from Cairo.”


“Daley’s soft in Chicago, he ain’t his father’s son. We could show him a thing or two on how a machine is run.”
– Stace England, also from “Buy My Vote.”


“I don’t intend to see the Lower Mississippi left behind.”
– Bill Clinton, August 1996 at a Cairo campaign rally, as quoted in The Southern Illinoisan.


“If there’s any hope for Cairo, it's not in a new building or a new official, it’s in the one-on-one interaction.”
– Actor Chris Jackson, as quoted in a March 2016 article titled, "From Cairo to Broadway: Actor Christopher Jackson clings to his roots as his star rises."


“I’m a survivor. Cairo taught me, and still teaches me, how pointless and soul-destroying hatred is.”
– Rachel Jones, media consultant, former NPR reporter, originally of Cairo, from an NPR “Reporter’s Notebook,” published in January 2006. Jones, writing about her reactions to England’s CD that had recently been published on Cairo, reflected on her time growing up in the city.

“Martin Luther King did not have the dream department cornered. He and I have a dream. That’s to rebuild this city.
– Cairo Public Utility Manager Larry Klein , referring to Cairo Mayor Tyrone Coleman, as quoted in a February 2015 article by The Southern Illinoisan titled, “Leaders, residents optimistic about the future of Cairo.”


“But as I get closer (to Cairo), I notice that about a third of them are black, about two-thirds of them are white. And as we approach and enter the parking lot, they're all wearing these little blue buttons. And they say, 'Obama for US Senate.' And Dick and I get off the van, and they're smiling and taking pictures and offering autographs and offering us barbecue. And I look at Dick and he looks at me, and we knew what the other person was thinking. If you had asked Dick Durbin 30 years earlier — son of Lithuanian immigrants, father dies when he's barely out of fifth grade, mother ultimately had to support him and died early as well.

If you had told him that he would be returning as the senior United States senator from the State of Illinois and that he'd have in tow a black guy born in Hawaii, with a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas, named Barack Obama, and that not only would he be the Democratic nominee but that the people of Cairo would have a reception like this, he would have said, ‘This is unimaginable. It's impossible.’ And yet it was happening.

I think that reminds me of one of my favorite sayings by Dr. King, and a good place to end. You know, Dr. King once said, shortly after the walk over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and at a time when people were very discouraged about the corruption movement, he said, 'The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.'"

– Barack Obama, during “A Conversation with Senator Barack Obama and Aspen Institute President Walter Isaacson,” Saturday July 2, 2005; transcript courtesy of walkinginplace.org.

On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI  

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