Commercial Avenue and Its Environs, Cairo, Illinois

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Update: It appears many of the buildings below are now gone.

Commercial Avenue is really where Cairo’s history turns dark and tragic. The desolation that dominates the lower east side of the peninsula shows in the photo above. Though several blocks away, I could capture a clear shot of the remaining buildings on what was the busiest street in Cairo from Washington Avenue. There is nothing to block the view.

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It’s shocking to see my friends’ photos from five, or even two years ago. So much is gone, it is hard to believe.

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Most of the town is wood, but in the downtown area, it turns to brick; the original wealth of the city shows in its now abandoned buildings.

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Back to Commercial Avenue itself; the intense bigotry and racism that dominates the history of this city since the Civil War, when slaves fled to what was the closest free territory in the North, has in many ways defined Cairo. The despicable lynching of Will James, an African-American, which occurred at 8th and Commerical Avenue encapsulates the hatred which ripped this town apart. Crowds were estimated to being close to the entire population of the town at the time in 1909. These buildings would have been lit that night by street lights shining down on the fires and mobs of people. What kind of town is so depraved?

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By the 1960’s, the African American population had grown tired of living in fear and subjugation to discrimination, and boycotted all businesses in town that refused to hire or serve them. The logical outcome, the ending of segregation, never came in Cairo. Instead, the town’s businesses closed one by one rather than submit to equality. Now Nature passes judgment on the buildings that once housed those businesses, and they are all receiving a death sentence. Very few remain, and I doubt they will be around much longer.

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One street off of Commercial survives relatively intact, with the Gem Theater still standing. But the buildings are all vacant for the most part.

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Bryon says:

    I’ve only been through Cairo at night (maybe a dozen times). Creepy place. I’m not a spiritualist and only slightly superstitious but something is not right about that place. It’s like the opposite of holy ground. That’s the vibe I’ve always gotten there.

    I’ve heard people talk about river cities having a lot of spiritual mojo – either good or bad. Some say it is because of mystical currents that naturally propagate near flowing water, like electrical currents. Personally, I think that’s all bullsh!t. However, Cairo being smack on the Mississippi and Ohio, na that still doesn’t explain how that place feels.

    When I was delivering I had a lot of river city stops all over Missouri and Illinois (mostly between 6pm and 6am). Cairo? Na, couldn’t pay me enough. I can almost understand your fascination with it on an academic level. Otherwise, dude, wtf are you doing there? Run! 😛

  2. Thanks for the Cairo posts. I have seen it mentioned so many times by Twain as though it should be this great metropolis at the confluence of these great rivers, yet I never encountered any contemporary mentions of it (until the flooding in that region a few years back). Interesting to finally found out what became of it. A tragic story. Seems a kind verdict to call it a town whose glory days are gone — more like a town whose potential greatness was never achieved.

  3. Paul says:

    It’s pretty sad, but Cairo has a lot in common with St. Louis. I really love the town, and during my two brief visits was struck by how much of their ubiquitous cast iron architecture carries St. Louis brand names. The sphere of influence was both economic and social.

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