Stace England

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Musician Stace England discussed his fascination with Cairo, Ill., during a visit to the historic downtown area Wednesday.

Matt Sanders
Southeast Missourian

CAIRO, Ill. --The atmosphere of modern-day Commercial Avenue in Cairo is surreal.

The wide street was designed to carry large volumes of people and goods through the city's bustling commercial center on the riverfront. Any more, Commercial Avenue is deserted like an Old West ghost town or Hollywood sound stage.

The crumbling facades of the buildings carry the marks of late 19th- and early 20th-century architecture -- two-, three- and four-story buildings made largely of brick and mortar, some with high arched windows, all with boarded-up windows.

"This used to be commercial ground zero, where it all took place," says Stace England. "Now it really is ground zero."

For England, an independent and eclectic musician who works as an efficiency consultant at Southern Illinois Healthcare, Commercial Avenue is the best illustration of Cairo's fall from a bustling early 20th-century city to its place now as a city with a declining population, a plummeting tax base and hollow former businesses and homes.

But Cairo's sad past also provides optimism for the future.

"I feel this is one of the important historical sites of the entire nation," England said as he walked in front of the decaying buildings on Commercial. "My goal is just to tell the story of this place."

England chose the medium he knew best to tell that story -- music.

In a musical collaboration with more than 50 musicians and involving extensive historical research, England has created an 11-track album called "Greetings from Cairo, Illinois," which follows the city's past from its beginnings in the mid-1800s to its decline in the late 20th century.

Today barricades sit in front of buildings that have been deemed unsafe for occupation, with warnings posted on some. A sign on one side of the street warns people they're being watched by police video.

Every now and then a stray car or pedestrian travels down Commercial.

"The old timers say the throngs of people used to be so thick you couldn't walk on the sidewalk," England said.

England's musical journey explores the highs and lows of Cairo's history. The album begins with a traditional folk song, "Goin' Down to Cairo," that traces its origin to around 1858, and ends with "Can't We All Get Along," a rock-pop tune that aspires to a greater future for the city.

In between are the experiences of a struggling city: the optimism of freed slaves coming to the North only to meet the disappointment of segregation; lynch mobs who killed both white and black; bigotry passed down from generation to generation; the vigilante justice of the White Hats coinciding with the start of the civil rights movement in Cairo in 1967; a visit by Jesse Jackson in 1969; and politicians purchasing votes for petty cash, cigarettes and alcohol in the 2000 Alexander County primary election.

The tales are told in different styles. "I wanted to make the sound of each song sort of fit the time frame and the feeling that's being conveyed," England said.

"Far from the Tree," a song about prejudicial attitudes, is a dark strummer seething with resentment and anger that seems to boil under the surface, ready to explode.

"When the '60s hit, there was a collision that was going to happen, and I tried to get that song to reflect that," England said. "One of the things about Cairo is African-Americans expected the white community to turn on a dime ... and that just wasn't really possible."

"Jesse's Comin' to Town" is a song about Jackson's 1969 visit to Cairo that uses the unbridled funk of the time, with wah-wah guitar and a blaring horn section.

And with each story is a narrative of the history behind the song provided by thorough liner notes.

The civil rights movement in Cairo enticed England to undertake a project like "Greetings from Cairo." England read a book called "Let My People Go," which documented the town's racial struggle in pictures, by Cairo resident Preston Ewing.

Ewing, an active NAACP member at the time of the civil rights battles in Cairo, captured the struggle with his camera.

In the late 1960s, Cairo was a city with a large black community that wanted change. A riot following the death of a 19-year-old black soldier in 1967 forced National Guard intervention and started a seven-year struggle. Police said Robert Hunt had hanged himself with a T-shirt, but there were suspicions of rogue police action.

Members of the black community participated in marches, holding signs demanding an end to discrimination. Some whites reacted by forming the vigilante group called the White Hats.

Ewing, who keeps extensive documentation of the history of Cairo, would become the chief source of information for England, a Cobden resident, when he decided to look into Cairo's history before and after the movement.

"When I saw that book I was just blown away by it," England said. "That got me to hanging around Cairo, and I thought: You have two rivers, an interstate and the railroad that run through Cairo. Cairo should be a metropolis. My first question is, Why not?"

England' research turned up many reasons why Cairo experienced such a decline -- and a rich history as well.

"Cairo is like an onion," England said. "The more layers I peeled back, the more history was there."

England points to political corruption, an old-guard leadership that feared change and the racial struggle as the elements that helped tear Cairo down, along with a lack of space for expansion.

From the town's high point in the early 20th century the population has dropped from more than 15,000 people in 1920 to about 3,600 in 2000, with blacks making up 62.5 percent of the population.

Cairo's geographic position at the point where the Mississippi and Ohio rivers meet was responsible for the city's growth but also led to its decline, said Ewing.

"Cairo begins to decline when the river economy died," Ewing said. "Cairo never had land on which to diversify an industrial base and create jobs. Cairo could only go north, but there was not flood protection there."

Building a levee north of the city to keep out both rivers was impractical, so the economy stagnated.

In 2000, Cairo had a 7 percent unemployment rate, with 27.6 percent of its households living on less than $10,000 a year and a family poverty rate of 27.1 percent, according to census statistics.

While Cairo's busiest days are behind it, a look at Magnolia Manor and Riverlore, two restored mansions in the city's best residential area on Washington Avenue, tells England the past might be Cairo's saving grace.

The mansions are a contrast to the decaying remains of Commercial and the weeds growing in the lots of long-abandoned gas stations, illustrating the two sides of Cairo's history.

"I see Cairo as a parallel universe -- nothing makes sense there," England said. "It's kind of through the looking glass. It never found its footing as to what it's supposed to be.

"Their history is their gold, but they don't quite know it yet."

For more information on "Greetings from Cairo, Illinois," visit www.staceengland.com.

msanders@semissourian.com

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