Friday, July 24, 2009

Rightsizing Cairo

Above: Cairo, Illinois, December 2007.
Below: Cairo, Illinois, July 2009, same place, different result.

I'm just back from a 5-day, 2500-mile drivathon (with Marcia, Olon, and Lisa) to the Gulf Coast, my fourth since Hurricane Katrina, including a stop in Cairo, Illinois.

There's a lot to say of what we saw and I'll close this post with some of those introductions.

Here, I want to focus on Cairo, which I first visited in December 2007 and wrote about in an earlier onesmallproject.blogspot post. A city located at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, with economic logic and strategic significance that are no longer relevant. A culture where refusal by white business owners to hire black employees led to an extended economic boycott that added to the city's freefall. What was once 20,000 people is now 2,000.

I went back to several locations to record the current condition, as compared to late 2007.

You see in the images that open this post the most dramatic of changes: a building that in 2007 had a tree growing through its facade has rubbled, exposing the tree's base and pulling down the neighboring building.

This is one way that nature fights ... slowly, growing a tree, finding a crack between brick wall and limestone sill, growing, growing, growing out, up, and to the light, and all the time pushing, bending, invading ... toppling, reclaiming, looking for more.

Above (2007) and Below (2009): a view down Commercial Street. From here, the only notable difference was the amount of traffic during our recent visit--tourists, motorcyclists, after-church locals, all driving slowly, some offering to talk with me to express their surprise, history, wonder.

This moment changed some things for me in 2007, finding the inside of a glass door covered with vegetation and a tree attempting to grow out of the crack between sidewalk and facade, seeing this long-term deterioration of the human-made environment and the patience and power of nature. In 2009, the growing was on-going, the door was open, the plants reaching out.

While the appreciation for Duke, telephone number, and very good question remain, the aluminum framing (above, December 2007) that once was a front door is gone in July 2009, probably at the hands of a scrapper.

Significant difference here, between winter and summer conditions. Facade elements holding on in 2007 (above) are gone or in the process of collapsing in 2009 (below).

For more images, go to Cairo 2009.

Along the 2500 miles, we saw some things:

Birmingham, Alabama ... Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley, all members of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Youth Choir and all killed by a bomb that exploded in the ladies' lounge in the church's basement at 10:22 AM on September 15, 1963, the clock, today, still telling that time, reminding.

Tuskegee, Alabama ... at Olon's alma mater, Tuskegee University, and there's no way not to be awed by the founder Booker T. Washington and the work of George Washington Carver, humbled by the early buildings (constructed with bricks handmade on-site by students), the Airmen, and every student, faculty member, employee, and advocate, and inspired by Paul Rudolph's best, the Tuskegee Chapel.

Montgomery, Alabama ... a slow shock, so many critical moments of the Civil Rights Movement pulsed and pulsing there: Rosa Parks, Bull Connor, George Wallace, Martin Luther King Jr.'s first congregation, Ralph Abernathy. Today, the Southern Poverty Law Center and Civil Rights Memorial Center + Maya Lin, but also Wall of Tolerance, where each visitor can enter his or her name as a show of commitment to the ideals of the Civil Rights Movement: to work in our daily lives for justice, equality, and human rights.

New Orleans ... the Lower Ninth Ward with Brad Pitt building architectural monsters one after another. Here, maybe only here, I'm embarrassed to be an architect, I'm walking in an architectural horror show, courtesy of some of the world's "best" architects. But at least Pitt is doing something.

New Orleans ... Duncan Plaza encircled with chain link and emptied of a 200-person tent city in December 2007 under the pretense of some local construction. We see it again, as it sits across from City Hall and Mayor Ray Nagin, the plaza still empty, with construction going on two sides, but really, no need to move the people out except to get them out of sight.

New Orleans ... Bourbon Street, my first elevated police booth.

Lafayette, Louisiana ... Acadiana Outreach Center (visited in 2008 and 2009) designed, cobbled together, and built incrementally under the guidance of our friend Hector LaSala.

Memphis ... late one night we stopped on Beale Street for dinner. But beyond that, the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, must be seen, as I saw it in 2007, on a dark, rainy night--the balcony and car, double-hung window barely open across the alley, light on, James Earl Ray waited there, patient, and pushed his gun's barrel out, aimed, and fired. In a split second, death ... and so much dead.

Cairo ... after some photography, walking around, we find a place of business, a bar, Fat Boys Bar & Grill, what seems to be the only functioning business on Commercial Street, and it's not until I've ordered a soft drink that I see a large Confederate flag hanging from the ceiling, a vicious reminder of past struggles and tensions still alive.

We drove away from this place, Olon and I, planning our return.

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