Cairo, Ill., sits on a narrow peninsula at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, in the heart of a region called Little Egypt for the resemblance it bears to the flat, loamy landscape of the Nile River Delta. Charles Dickens, after a visit in 1842, dubbed Cairo a "dismal swamp ... uncheered by any gleam of promise," although Mark Twain rehabilitated its image 40 years later, making it the destination of Huck and Jim's river voyage in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. At its 1920s peak, Cairo was a boomtown of 15,000 people. But as river trade declined, so did Cairo. In the 1960s and '70s, the town was engulfed in racial turmoil: white residents formed vigilante groups, while Cairo's black population waged a three-year boycott of businesses that refused to integrate. What's left, after decades of white flight and economic stagnation, is an expanse of abandoned buildings, bulldozed lots and forgotten history. Around 3,000 people live in Cairo (pronounced Kay-ro), a third of them below the poverty line. "I describe this town in three words," says Preston Ewing Jr., Cairo's unofficial historian and former president of the local NAACP chapter: "poor, black and ugly."
That hasn't deterred Chris Johnston, 36, the proprietor of punk label Plan-it-X Records. A genial Indiana native with a blond widow's peak and a penchant for flannel shirts, Johnston was looking for a decrepit Midwestern river town to relocate his business to when he saw Cairo on the map. "I grew up by the Ohio River," he says. "The more I read about the town's history, the more intrigued I got." Like the urban homesteaders who have set up shop in recent years in economically depressed areas of Detroit and Pittsburgh, Pa., Johnston came to Cairo in pursuit of dirt-cheap property and with an altruistic sense of purpose. "In all the cool places I've lived Bloomington, Gainesville, Olympia I felt like I could add to the community but not affect it. By taking the little bit I could afford to a place that had nothing, I felt like I could make a bigger difference." Johnston found an old Knights of Columbus building on Cairo's main drag and bought it in May for $24,000. Along with his girlfriend Adrienne Tootle, 25, and Zach Rapattoni, 24, he spent months making the building habitable.
In October, the group opened the Ace of Cups coffee shop and bookstore the first new business to launch in Cairo in four years. The windows are adorned with posters, and on the door is a carefully scripted sign in black Sharpie that reads "We Are Not For-Profit." Inside, the brightly painted walls are lined with stacks of used books. Johnston had invited friends to come and work at the coffee shop in exchange for free rent but got few takers. "A lot of people shook on it and then backed out," he explains. "A friend of mine basically told me, 'I want to live in a place that already has nice things,' as opposed to this plan of building nice things, which is what we're doing."
Business is slow. Rapattoni and Johnston open the store each morning at 10 and stand around at the counter, waiting for customers. Cars lazily circle the block, their passengers peering in the windows, trying to understand the purpose of the incongruously cheery purple storefront. "What are they doing?" wonders Judson Childs, Cairo's mayor. "I drive by, and it doesn't seem to be a thriving business."
The residents of Cairo are nonplussed by the newcomers, whose presence they view as voyeuristic and temporary. Johnston and his friends aren't the first to come into town with grand dreams of urban revitalization. "People in Cairo are used to people coming to help and then leaving," says Donna Raynalds, director of SIDEZ, a southern Illinois economic-development nonprofit.
Johnston admits there's a lack of trust. "What I hope is, by staying here and being open, eventually people will realize we're serious," he says. Raynalds is cautiously optimistic about their chances but notes that even the best-intentioned efforts often stumble on the follow-through. "Starting things is glorious," she says. "The everyday sustaining that's hard."