CAIRO, Ill. — There are not as many pickup basketball games these days. Not as many kids dribbling in the street after school. Not anymore, at least. Not since the town’s two biggest public housing complexes closed a year ago.
Except some afternoons still have a slow pulse, like on this Thursday in early April, with a handful of kids skipping around a skinny block on Cairo’s northern end. In an hour or so, they would all be called in for dinner and leave skateboards and scooters and bicycles scattered on the sidewalk. The street would then fall quiet again, like the ones next to it and the ones across town and the ones weaving through the Elmwood and McBride housing complexes, where about 400 people used to live and now only a few dozen families remain.
But first there was an important game of one-on-one basketball to play, as two little boys bounded toward baskets on each side of the block, focusing hard to keep the ball from striking the uneven pavement and bouncing out of reach.
Jermar Collier, a 9-year-old in a baggy blue shirt, said he wants to be like Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry when he grows up. Ten-year-old Rashad Harrison has a different hero.
“I’m going to be the next Paypay Taylor,” Harrison declared, referring to Demarius Taylor, the 18-year-old high school guard, the possible last basketball star of Cairo, Ill.
A ‘dying community’
Demarius Taylor floated up and down the court in Cairo High School’s gymnasium later that evening, his 6-foot frame squeezing through defenders on his way to the rim, his shots pouring in one after another. This is where he grew into the scorer who averaged 28 points per game this past season, was named first-team all-state and later earned six votes for Illinois’ Mr. Basketball award as a senior. This is where he became another piece of Cairo’s long basketball history.
His drive to the gym cuts through the center of Illinois’ southernmost town, which is located where the Ohio and Mississippi rivers meet and is closer to Huntsville, Ala., than Chicago. On the right is the Dollar General, one of the few remaining stores, a gas station no longer offering gas, and a Subway sandwich shop that closed two years ago but is still advertising “SOUP AND CHILI ARE BACK” and “BOWL OF BISCUITS AND GRAVY 99￠.” On the left is a minimart that just started selling fresh fruit, a gutted motel and Cairo’s Historic Park District, filled with abandoned mansions that hint at the city it never became.
There is no grocery store. No hospital. No community center, so the high school gym hosts weddings and post-funeral meals and pickup basketball runs such as this one. It is also where Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson stood in August, an American flag hanging beyond his right shoulder at center court, lamenting the unfairness of Cairo’s situation but offering no concrete solutions to fix it. Two months earlier, during a hearing in Washington, Carson had called Cairo a “dying community.”
Cairo (pronounced CARE-oh), has been depopulating for decades, but an ongoing public housing crisis threatens its very existence. HUD closed the Elmwood and McBride complexes in April 2017 because of years of mismanagement, displacing about a sixth of Cairo’s 2,400 residents. Cairo High School had just 97 students, the fewest in its history, when classes started soon after Carson’s visit. The town keeps shrinking — along with the solutions to stabilize it — as Illinois confronts an issue facing states across the country: whether to lift disadvantaged communities by reviving public housing or tell people to move on.
“Nobody seems to know what’s going to happen. There was no planning,” Cairo Mayor Tyrone Coleman said in early April. “It’s taken this event to make elected officials even realize we’re here.”
Last Wednesday, Carson proposed significant changes to federal housing subsidies, including raising rent for low-income Americans. The initiative, which was criticized by housing advocates and would require approval by Congress, would initially affect half of the 4.7 million families receiving housing benefits, HUD officials said.
About 40 families remain in Elmwood and McBride’s livable units, the only ones not boarded up by light-brown plywood. Those families have until June 30 to vacate their homes before facing eviction, according to a HUD official. They, along with those who have already left, were given public housing vouchers to move elsewhere. Taylor is the seventh of 11 children and still lives in McBride with his mother and some of his siblings. The high-scoring guard — whom everyone calls “Paypay” because he used to hustle adults in video games — learned to play basketball on McBride’s court, back when the playground buzzed with evening activity and brought dozens of kids outside.
That doesn’t happen anymore. Many of the kids are gone and the best pickup runs are at the high school, where the Cairo Pilots once again lifted this basketball-crazed community with an improbable season. Cairo pressed its way through Illinois’ Class 1A Regional in February, upending much bigger schools while playing all but three games on the road, as most opponents were unwilling to travel to Cairo. The Pilots finished 23-6 and four games short of their first state championship.
But now they, too, stare down their town’s possible collapse and what could also be the end of an important basketball tradition.
“I guess I don’t know what will happen,” Taylor said in April. “The team will be straight, they’ll be good, unless everyone moves away.”
‘Basketball is life here’
Cairo overflows with basketball hoops, from the town’s barren south-end streets to its northern point, to the stone levy on its eastern edge to the grassy one to the west.
There are cracked courts behind closed schools, a clean plexiglass backboard at the end of one street, and a worn, crooked basket the next block over. On the town’s south side, a square piece of plywood is fastened to a telephone pole and a netless orange rim is bent toward the ground. The wood was taken from one of the windows of the boarded-up hospital across the street. The hospital closed in 1987. The rim is still holding on.
“Basketball is life here,” said Dr. Andrea Evers, the superintendent of the Cairo School District. “It’s a lifeline. It always has been.”
The sport is woven through the town’s troubled history, with the 1987 team or 2003 team or 2004 team floating into casual conversations. Cairo, which is 70 percent black, once aspired to be a bustling river-trade city. Victorian mansions were built in the 1860s with the town’s promising future in mind, as were schools and churches and restaurants that have since shut down. As river and rail trade diminished in the early 20th century, jobs started to leave town. That, coupled with violent racial tension that erupted in the late 1960s, led to a mass departure of investment in Cairo. Its potential was further stunted when the Interstate 57 bridge was built to travel a mile north of town in 1978. That gave trucks and travelers little reason to pass through and its service industry little chance to develop.
That all left Cairo in steady decline. In 2016, Cairo’s poverty rate reached 46.5 percent and its population fell to 40 percent of what it was in 1980. Today, Cairo School District is the town’s largest employer, followed by the Bunge oilseeds plant. There are otherwise two restaurants, two liquor stores and two housing complexes slowly emptying out.
“If Cairo goes down, I’ll go down with it,” said Mary Teague, an older woman who moved to Cairo in 1986. “My kids keep trying to get me to move, but I’ll go down with it.”
It is all they have been hearing since last April. Cairo is in another downswing. The town is dying, one boarded-up housing unit at a time. This time, there is no hope.
The high school players heard it, too, as their roster was thinned by the public housing crisis before the season started. A 6-foot-5 forward moved 50 minutes north to Marion, Ill., because that provided his mother with better job opportunities. Another player left for Blytheville, Ark.. The same could happen again next year, with more families gone and current players living with grandparents or cousins or friends so they can stay in Cairo for at least one more basketball season. HUD plans to demolish the Elmwood and McBride complexes this summer.
“We’re going to coach whoever is here. That’s all we can do,” said Larry Wood, who just finished his first season as Cairo’s head coach. “But either way, this past year’s team meant so much to the town and leaves a great legacy behind.”
‘I couldn’t face it’
A week after Cairo’s season-ending loss to Sesser-Valier High School in the sectional semifinals, Taylor and senior teammate Malachi Brown sat in the school district office and leafed through cards made by elementary school students. The cards congratulated the Pilots on a great season, and some showed Taylor, in his No. 11 jersey, drawn in crayon on pieces of construction paper. Taylor could not stop thinking about how fast his senior season ended.
“I got T’d up for no reason,” Taylor said, referring to a technical foul called on him in the sectional semifinals. “I was talking to my teammate!”
“It felt like your best friend got killed, like someone just robbed you,” added Brown, who hopes to walk on the football team at Southern Illinois University despite never playing in an organized game. “It was a lot of mixed emotions. Anger, sadness.”
They stayed there with Evers, Cairo’s superintendent, and kept rehashing the final game of the season. Evers, along with Wood, the team’s coach, is active in the players’ lives. She checks in on players’ schoolwork and stays late to help them study, even though she has a 45-minute drive home to Paducah, Ky. She rode the team bus to most games and was one of the team’s only fans on the road. She watched the Pilots defeat much bigger schools — some with 1,099 or 1,369 or 735 students — while traveling far east to Kentucky, west to Missouri and sometimes hours north into Illinois, often to predominantly white communities.
Evers has also shepherded Taylor through his college recruiting process. Taylor finished his senior season still looking for a chance, drawing interest from junior colleges throughout southern Illinois. He had more games with 40 points (three) than under 20 (two), but Cairo did not have any kind of weight-training program before this season, and Taylor’s skinny frame made a junior college scholarship more attainable than a shot with a Division I school. Cairo players also have a difficult time getting noticed.
“It’s hard to see how these kids just don’t get a fair chance,” said Evers, wiping tears from her eyes. “If Demarius were at a bigger school, or Malachi at a bigger school, people would be looking at them. They’d have scholarships by now. But it’s Cairo, and you’re counted out if you’re from Cairo.”
Behind Taylor and Brown, the Pilots won the regional championship this past season. That led into the state quarterfinals and the matchup with Sesser-Valier High School, which led to Taylor’s fourth-quarter technical, which led him to foul out and watch the end of a crippling loss from the sideline, which led them to Evers’s office with the construction-paper cards and a conversation that will course far into the future, whenever the 2018 team is brought up.
“I didn’t even come to school the next day,” Taylor said.
“Me either,” Brown added.
“I couldn’t face it,” Taylor muttered, but by the next day he had no other choice.
‘That’s the hope’
Taylor smacked his right hand against the ball, Cairo’s bleachers empty aside from a few toddlers playing tag, and dashed toward the right elbow with his eyes fixed on the shifting defense.
The court was filled with players from Cairo’s present and past for that evening pickup run in early April. Taylor made 10 straight shots during one stretch of play, switching hands in the air to spin in a lefty layup, pulling up for a five-foot floater and finally stepping behind the three-point line to bury a jump shot.
“Yo Pay, you get that offer at Lincoln yesterday?” asked Carlton Jackson, who graduated from Cairo in 2015, after the games wrapped up. Taylor smiled and nodded. Evers had brought Taylor to Lincoln (Ill.) College for a visit, traveling four hours in the minivan used for the school’s driver’s education classes, and he left Lincoln with a scholarship offer to play National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics basketball. NAIA is a step below the NCAA but gives Taylor the potential opportunity to transfer to a Division I program.
“Yo! You can go anywhere after that, man!” Carlton yelled.
“That’s the hope,” Taylor said quietly, his teeth stained red by two big gulps of a fruit-punch drink, his grin fading into his round face.
He stepped into a cool evening, a light breeze pushing off the Ohio River, and into a car in the high school’s gravel parking lot. Taylor’s family will soon move to Marion when they, too, have to leave the only place he has ever lived. He’ll miss Cairo, the courts he grew up playing on, the school hallways that hummed with his name, all the friends who might not be there if he ever comes back to visit.
But first there was another drive cutting through the center of town, past the gutted motel, the gasless gas pumps, the abandoned mansions and finally to the quieted McBride housing complex, still home, down but not yet finished.
Design and development by Joe Moore. Photo editing by Ray Saunders.