The Cairo Project -- a report by the students of the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

What is the Matter, part 1 What is the Matter, part 2 What is the Matter, part three What is the Matter, part four Download PDF
What is the Matter with Cairo?

Story by Jaclyn Brenning

Part One

In a city nestled behind the quiet floodwalls at the confluence of two great American rivers, with bridges to the west and south and flood plains wrapping around to the north, there stands a clock. It keeps track of the minutes only sporadically now, often lagging hours behind.

Like everything else in Cairo, sometimes it seems time itself has paused to catch its breath. And like other parts of Cairo history, there is an ugly back-story to this place. The broken clock stands at the site of an early 20th Century lynching.

The Cairo clocktower.

Photo by Daudi Msseemmaa.

Jamia Wiggins and Sharicka Smith, both 14, talk at the base of the clock tower in the middle of the downtown intersection
of 7th and Commercial Street. The clock has since been moved to another location.

The clock is encircled by a highway. To the east stands Bunge, the largest employer in town, a couple of gas stations and a liquor store. There is the Customs House and just across the highway is the library, a beautiful building of red brick. Behind the library, and a little to the north, is an avenue known as Millionaire's Row, lined with houses almost as old as the town itself, remnants of Cairo's glory.

But behind those mansions and a little to the south, are dozens - scores even - of dilapidated structures, so full of asbestos that the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency will not permit the city to tear them down for fear of spreading the contamination throughout the town and into the river. So they stand, an eyesore and a continual hazard to those living nearby, not as testimony to Cairo's former glory, but as indicators of Cairo's chaotic history and uncertain present.

The people of Cairo are proud and fiercely loyal to their city. At the same time, they are open about their city's problems. One question bubbles up in any conversation about Cairo - whether the discussion is at the state capitol, at city hall or the diners where old timers gather to talk about the city over coffee.

What is the matter with Cairo?

No Council, No Quorum, No Budget

Mayor James Wilson was voted out of office in 2003, and Paul Farris took over city hall. Farris, who had promised peace and a return to economic prosperity, fired almost everyone on the police and fire departments during his first week in office. He appointed a new city hall staff, fired the former city clerk, and hired a new city attorney.

During Farris' first year in office, the city council could not agree on a budget. When the city council finally put one together, Farris vetoed it.

The city of Cairo operated without an official city budget for three years. There were no records kept, either of what the city owed or what it was bringing in. City hall and its employees lived week-to-week, scraping by on the money paid monthly by the Cairo Public Utility Company.

Some called the Farris years the “Farris regime.” It featured a constant power struggle between city council members and the mayor. At the end of 2005, four council members refused to attend meetings.

The mayor called it a boycott. “But it really wasn't a boycott,” city councilman Bobby Whitaker said. “We didn't say we would never work with the mayor. The point was that we wanted to work with the mayor - but it had to be a two-way street.”

As punishment, Farris removed council members Whitaker, Linda Jackson, Elbert “Bo” Purchase and Sandra Tarver from the city payroll.

Little was accomplished during the rest of the Farris years.

Jump to part 2