September 06, 2007

Interest grows in Cairo revitalization effort

by Christi Mathis


CARBONDALE, Ill. – Along with a new headquarters and tentative new name, the Cairo community revitalization project is drawing increasing involvement from the public and Southern Illinois University Carbondale students and faculty.

With assistance from the Cairo Rotary Club and the Southernmost Illinois Delta Empowerment Zone, the SIUC "Preservation Summer" initiated the urban design and community revitalization project. The fall semester ARC451 Urban Design and Community Class from SIUC is now taking up the cause. Continuing survey work and a community meeting are set for Sept. 10 and the public is welcome.

The SIUC architecture class toured Cairo late last month and trained in the property survey-inventory process so it can continue work already begun. Cairo residents and students teamed up to survey more of 17th through 20th streets. Leading the local contingent were Vernon Stubblefield, Suzy Holland, Cathy Cox, Effie Harrell, Inez Donnigan and Sarah Jane Clark. The use of golf carts for surveys made it easier for resident senior citizens to lend a hand.

Several faculty and students from other departments at SIUC are also participating in the project. They include Antonio J. Martinez, cinema and photography assistant professor; Roberto E. Barrios, anthropology assistant professor; anthropology undergraduate assistant Vitor E. Teixeira; social work student Christine E. Marlow, who has been doing field work for the Southern Illinois Community Foundation; and archaeologist/artist/photographer Rachel Malcom-Woods, formerly on the SIUC faulty.

"All of these faculty and students are becoming involved in the Cairo project as an interdisciplinary effort in ways that will be determined as the Cairo Urban Studio project continues," said Robert H. Swenson, associate professor and architect from the SIUC School of Architecture. He said Shawnee Community College history instructor Bobby Peak and some of his students also plan to participate in the future, pending travel and scheduling arrangements.

The Cairo Rotary Club surprised the students and SIUC faculty with an "appreciation" meal prior to the last community meeting. At the meeting that followed, a number of community volunteers attended for the first time, including some local residents the survey teams had met earlier in the day and invited to the meeting.

According to local resident Bill Harrell, invitations are out to about 20 Cairo community groups to join the project. The group has a tentative project name, "20/20 Vision," representing the goal of a new and revitalized city by 2020.

Harrell also announced one major goal has already been met. They've secured office space for the Cairo Studio Project at 707 Washington Ave. in Cairo and the class has a key. It's in the Cairo Citizen newspaper building and publisher Jim West and Reppert Publications Inc., owner of the Cairo Citizen, are donating the heated, air-conditioned office space use at present.

Survey work will resume at 1 p.m. Monday, Sept. 10, starting with a meeting at the new office location. A community meeting at 5:30 p.m. that day is set for the First Presbyterian Church, 1708 Washington St. The public is welcome.

Suggestions from the public for Cairo revitalization have been pouring in already. Residents have suggested new uses for the old hospital building, an abandoned nursing home facility, and downtown area improvements. They've also discussed ways to improve community involvement in the revitalization project.

Several Cairo residents plan to join the ARC451 class on a trip Sept. 19-23 to the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. A member of the SIUC contingent even offered to sponsor a Cairo High School student on the trip. Several Cairo High School students will likely participate in the upcoming survey work, Swenson indicated.

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 are moving forward with the project as "The Cairo Studio-Toward Sustainable Urban Neighborhoods." Swenson and Michael C. Batinski, history department chair, were the class co-teachers for "Preservation Summer."

Now, the multi-year project pairs the community with University faculty and students intending to brighten Cairo's future. Other SIUC classes will take over in the spring and summer of 2008, including a section of the architecture master's regional studio class, Swenson said. Ultimately, participants will photograph and survey all property in the city, assess the city's needs and compile short- and long-term recommendations for a revitalized Cairo.