August 15, 2007

Volunteers sought for Cairo revitalization project

by Christi Mathis

CARBONDALE, Ill. – An urban design and community revitalization project in Cairo is expanding and moving to a new phase. Initiated by Southern Illinois University Carbondale's "Preservation Summer," with assistance from the Cairo Rotary Club and the Southernmost Illinois Delta Empowerment Zone (SIDEZ), the project is garnering public attention and assistance. But, organizers hope more members of the public will participate.

Cairo area residents can attend a pair of upcoming public meetings to learn all about the plans to redevelop and renovate their community. Meetings are set for 5:30 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 20, and Monday, Aug. 27, at the First Presbyterian Church, 1708 Washington St.

The SIUC School of Architecture and Department of History sponsored "Preservation Summer," spearheading the initial phase of the community improvement project. Now, the architecture school's upper-level students will move forward with the project as "The Cairo Studio - Toward Sustainable Urban Neighborhoods."

The design teams will build on the Preservation Summer 2007 work, according to Robert H. Swenson, associate professor and architect from the School of Architecture. He and Michael C. Batinski, history department chair, were the class co-teachers for Preservation Summer. Swenson said the multi-year project will continue, using the work already completed by the class and by architectural studies graduate student Rob Clodi, and Effie Harrell, a Cairo resident and SIUC community listener.

Working with the Cairo Rotary, SIDEZ, the city of Cairo and Mayor Judson Childs, a new and as yet unnamed Cairo community group, Cairo High School, representatives from Shawnee Community College and anyone else willing to contribute, Swenson said they'll continue building a detailed inventory of all properties within the city limits. A digital spreadsheet and computer-drawn map database are being created using the data gathered and that will be the basis for a long-term master plan for Cairo and its future. Swenson said there will be continuity in this ongoing project because when the fall Urban Design and community studio class finishes, other classes will take over in the spring and summer of 2008, including a section of the architecture master's regional studio class.

Much has already been accomplished, including determining what information is needed and how to collect, document and store it. They've prepared various paper and digital maps, aerial photos, and a 3-D composite aerial photo/map. Bobby Mayberry, Cairo Emergency Services-911 director and community participant, along with the Southern Five Planning Commission, identified and provided other mapping capabilities and information. The community group is working with students to complete field surveys and photography. Swenson said partnering with the Rotarians and SIDEZ is a huge boost for the project.

Initial public meetings drew dozens of excited and interested people, Swenson said. Divided into teams, they tested procedures for a complete inventory of properties in a certain area of 17th and 18th streets. Those attending the Aug. 20 meeting will view the data and photographs collected so far, along with evaluations. Then, prior to the Aug. 27 meeting, the SIUC class will tour the city and complete training via a two-block field survey assisted by local citizens.

The group may have found an easily accessible, highly visible community space for meetings, planning and organization and materials storage, Swenson said. He said students will be involved in preparing a building for such use when it's secured.

SIUC architecture students in the fall studio sections are also participating in urban planning projects in New Orleans and Carbondale under the direction of architecture assistant professors Michael D. Brazley and Craig K. Anz. Faculty and students from a variety of other departments at SIUC also expressed interest in working on the studio projects, with Cairo particularly drawing interest, Swenson said.

An area agency is also dovetailing its work with the urban studio project in Cairo. The Egyptian Area Agency on Aging is evaluating a number of factors in Cairo and other communities, including Carbondale, to assess the ability of municipalities to deal with the aging baby boomer generation in terms of services and meeting needs, said John M. Smith, the agency's executive director.

They're gathering extensive data about transportation, public and social services, infrastructure and much more. Smith said it only makes sense to work in conjunction with the urban studies group to gather, share and analyze information. Representatives from the agency will attend the two upcoming public meetings. He said ultimately, they'll work with a focus group and information gathered to offer short- and long-term recommendations to help Cairo prepare for the future. He said his agency is working with the SIUC School of Social Work too.

"This is really exciting to have this kind of cooperative, interdisciplinary and inter-generational venture developing," Swenson said. "We are all hopeful that it will be seen as useful and relevant to our region's communities and will help in both recruitment and retention of students from the region. We are hopeful that a relationship with Shawnee Community College students and faculty and the Cairo High School will also help bring new students to the SIUC campus."