Cairo Illinois, at the tip of the state where it flows into Kentucky, is where the Ohio and the Mississippi flow into each other, where two great river systems crashing their way through America join the east and the Midwest on the way to the Gulf. It a slow, languid area, more deep south than Midwest, a strange humid little pocket in a state dominated by farm concerns and the bulk of Chicago.
Cairo (pronounced Kay-Row) is far from Chicago, a northern Great Lakes city born of industry. Cairo is, and always has been, a river town, a transit point. It’s proximity to great shipping areas should make it wealthy, or at least well off. Or at the very least, alive. But Cairo isn’t. It is grasping and almost dead, with over 100 years of racial violence, mismanagement, and neglect having brought it low. It’s few thousand remaining residents are battered by greed, oversight, and disinterest.
And, because this is America, race. It has been tortured by the violence of our endemic, perhaps inherent, racism. And it remains that way. Race, and the long tendrils of history, have choked the life out of Cairo, leaving it a broken city, filled with paranoia and injustice. One symptom of that is incredibly high utility prices. This seems minor, or at least explicable, but understanding why is key to the whole thing.
If you want to understand this, you have to read this incredible series in The Southern Illinoisian by Molly Parker and Issac Smith. A 7-part series published this week titled “Why Are Electric Rates in Cairo So High?”, it seems like a simple question, or like a weird little quirky thing. But it isn’t. It is a complex and terrible story, and Parker and Smith truly dig into it, in some of the finest journalism I’ve read in a long time. It shows just how much history and modernity have conspired to make life in Cairo increasingly difficult.
You should really read it, but it comes down to simple math: the poorest people in the state are being charged the most for electricity.
Residential CPUC customers are charged 12.5 cents per kWh while the customer charge is $10. The electric rate is staggering to some outsiders. This is about 30 percent higher than the Ameren CIPS rate of 9.6 cents per kWh just miles to the north.
30% might not seem like much. At a normal rate, that’s about $30 more a month. Which, if you’re poor, is a lot. But people in Cairo don’t use normal rates.
However, when comparing usage rates of 3,000 kWh or more, which is common in Cairo, the gap grows by a steep margin. For an Ameren customer, this usage would result in a $305 bill, plus a $17 customer charge.
So why do people in Cairo use more? Because (as an expert says) “in Cairo you’ve got a lot of housing where there’s no insulation, the air conditioners are old, the refrigerators are old, so a house there might use a lot more energy than a similar house in Carbondale or Champaign.”
And that’s where we really start to get into the heart of it. Cairo is very poor, and it is very expensive in America to be poor. They will always be using more electricity just to try to stay at a minor level of comfort, but they also are paying higher rates. They are doing that because it was decided by communities in Illinois, Missouri, and Kentucky that the area would use coal for their energy, because there was still a seam (this is historically coal country; there is still a big coal tower in liberal Carbondale). Coal meant a few immediate jobs, though none in Cairo.
And Cairo is remote. It is expensive to bring electricity there, especially because the plants aren’t located close to it. So to benefit others (and to keep our dependence on coal, though that is another American story), Cairo gets screwed.
It radiates outward. Businesses can’t afford electricity, so they close. Housing projects, which are already being shut down by HUD, aren’t being replaced by anything affordable due to high prices. People who want to rent homes or apartments on their meager incomes and leave the rotten and neglected public housing tenements can’t do so because exorbitant rates make it impossible.
Parker and Smith go to all these avenues, exploring the myriad ways in which these decisions impact people. They also talk to the decision makers, the people who run the CPUC, and for everyone, it is someone else’s decision, and they are trying to do the best they can. And really, that’s believable. Everyone is caught up in a strange web.
They always have been. Southern Illinois is a weird place, particularly in that pocket between the rivers. Twain called Cairo “the promised land”, because it was the southernmost tip of free soil. It was a river’s jump from Kentucky and from the horrors of slavery, and so was a beacon for free blacks.
But we know how that turned out, right? This was never exactly a beacon of racial tolerance. Beatings, burning, lynchings, and oppression followed. It was an area of hideous violence, which in America was subsumed euphemistically into “racial turbulence”. Finally, in 1967, there was a “race riot” (because mass lynchings, of course, don’t count as riots). After that, “white flight”, and the normal conclusions. Neglect and poverty. The town was almost flooded out in 2011, and there was a deep undercurrent in the state to let it drown.
That’s actually what many residents fear. In the most emotionally-gripping piece of the story, Parker writes about the paranoia that many residents have (this piece also talks about a local regional mob-type guy, who ran coin games and a bunch of penny-ante schemes, showing that there is still some color in this increasingly flattened country). Many residents feel that they are being intentionally driven out, that the powers-that-be want them to just leave, fade away, and get out of Cairo. That it is a decades-long plot to get rid of all the black people and the poor people, so that this valuable land can be grabbed by the rich.
And why not, really? Why wouldn’t you feel that way? This was never an easy place for African-Americans, who fled the horrors of the south just to find themselves in a southern outpost, free soil in name only. Far from Chicago far even from Springfield, the white authorities and residents of the area treated black citizens with the same violent contempt as across the border in the hollers and wilds of Kentucky. There’s no reason to think that the high prices are part of the same long play.
The past is never gone. In the area there was an illegal slave house, the Crenshaw House, that wasn’t exactly the best-kept secret around. Crenshaw used his slaves in salt mines, and because it was technically illegal, kept them in the dark and airless attic. It’s now a tourist attraction (or was when I was young), because they say it is haunted.
I don’t believe in ghosts now. But when I was in the attic I was terrified. Sure, I believed in ghosts then, and psyched myself out, but you could feel a presence. You could feel horror. I now think that what was felt was that history. The history of racial violence, of white supremacy, of terrorism. It lingered, a chill wind rustling through your sweaty and uncomfortable flesh. A reminder.
Yesterday lingers. It turns into today without us even realizing it. Parker and Smith show how that history impacts policy, impacts everyday lives, and impacts the mental atmosphere. Cairo is a nearly a ghost town, but not because it is abandoned. Because it is filled with the ghosts from an American past.