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But because it's for tourists, and you don't argue in front of the guests, it's an airbrushed souvenir postcard. You see little Toms and Beckys running all over the place, but no Jims. In Nauvoo, Ill., the Mormons celebrate their 19th century village life as they rebuild the town and its temple as a pilgrimage spot--but gloss over the bloody religious battles that led to their being pillaged and expelled in the first place. The hotel owner in Kimmswick says the town's latest scheme is re-enactments of the Civil War battle there. Was there ever really a Battle of Kimmswick? He concedes that it was, in his words, "just a skirmish that involved three Confederate soldiers hiding in a cave." Whatever.
This sort of thing is what social critics denounce as the Disneyfication of America, strip-mining history to market a version of the past that seems to have a special appeal as we race headlong into the future. This is not re-creating the past, they say, so much as distorting it: back when life in these towns was real, it wasn't always quaint--yet quaint is what sells now. Create a time that feels sweet and simple, and you don't have to smell the horses or die of cholera.
That all sounds like an academic argument when you're standing in the middle of downtown Cairo. If you want to visit the most unusual theme park in America, try this Main Street. It is a water slide of desolation, one abandoned building after another, a law office where the books rot on collapsing shelves. Last year the building inspector did a complete inventory of the town's structures--and condemned 108 buildings. With 90% of the storefronts dark and boarded over, it seems like a sick joke when one spots the Cairo Chamber of Commerce office. A bronze plaque set in rock in front of the library commemorates a visit by Bill and Hillary Clinton and Al Gore in August '96 as part of a bus tour. Clinton spoke to "more than 6,000" people, which would be at least 1,000 more than the town's current population.
If Cairo is a ghost town, it was the fight for justice that killed it. "It used to be called Little Chicago," says Deputy Mayor Judson Childs, walking a couple of visitors to the town center, where civil rights battles flared in the '60s. Little League baseball was ended to avoid integration, and in 1964 town authorities closed the new public pool rather than have blacks and whites swimming together. Blacks boycotted discriminating stores; whites retaliated with violence; federal authorities intervened. But something went horribly wrong. Most whites chose to shut down their stores and leave Cairo rather than integrate. Paducah, Ky., became the new center of shipping for the area. The hospital closed its doors.
And the streets of Cairo became empty. Now if you want gas, you have to get it before 8 at night. To shop or go to a movie means driving 30 or 40 miles into Kentucky or Missouri. The only black-owned business is a barbershop. A black woman in her late 20s, who just moved to Cairo a few years ago, sadly remarks, "This town is trapped in the past."