RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
For years, entire towns in the middle of the country have been emptying out and drying up. No place better illustrates this than the former river port and manufacturing town of Cairo, Ill. NPR's Kirk Siegler has been chronicling Cairo's struggles and recently returned to find that many promises of help have not materialized. But many folks are determined to hang on.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: When I last made this long drive from the airport in Memphis north along the Mississippi River to Cairo, the town once immortalized by Mark Twain was at the peak of its crisis. The nightmare everyone feared had come true. The federal government had decided to close two public housing projects where many of those who were left in Cairo lived. And folks were worried the school was next.
HOPE GREEN: Yeah, it's been a lot of in and out, up and down - a lot of uncertainty.
SIEGLER: The school is still here, thankfully, says Hope Green. There are about a hundred fewer students since I was here last year, only 26 seniors in the graduating class. Fourteen teachers were cut. But every effort was made to keep locals, like Green, on staff.
GREEN: I mean, to me, it's like I'm losing a big piece of me, like a piece of my heart. Just, like, the town is steady declining. It's never any good news really.
SIEGLER: Today is the last day of school. There is a barbecue of burgers and hot dogs.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: About within 10 minutes.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: About in 10 minutes, everything will be done.
SIEGLER: The firetruck is running its hoses so kids can cool off in the sweltering heat.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN YELLING)
SIEGLER: It was here, at this school last summer, where Housing Secretary Ben Carson faced a heated crowd after touring Cairo's neglected public housing projects. Suddenly, Cairo's housing crisis was in the national spotlight. Hope Green was skeptical back then. Now she's just cynical.
GREEN: Yeah. When Ben Carson came? Yeah. I mean, he didn't really say anything. Or he didn't talk about helping Cairo or nothing. He...
SIEGLER: Carson did pledge to do all he could to help everyone find a new place to live. But for many, that's meant leaving town. The school's superintendent, Annie Evers, says the narrative has been we're here to help people, not Cairo.
ANNIE EVERS: At the federal level, we're seeing that it's easier for the federal government to pull away from communities that have come on hard times.
SIEGLER: Evers is saddened by this. After all, as people here will remind you, river barge towns like this once helped build America. And then Cairo had decades of troubles - factory closures, corruption and outright neglect.
EVERS: We're not seeing that commitment. And that's really, really deeply troubling because we're not in isolation. There are Cairos throughout the United States who are being forgotten.
TOWANDA MACON: You know, do you keep people in a place where there's not a lot of economic development?
SIEGLER: Towanda Macon is overseeing Cairo's public housing crisis for HUD.
MACON: Or do you try to find people a neighborhood where there are Boys & Girls Club and community centers and choices in health care, where there's even a grocery store?
SIEGLER: And this is the tension. I mean, how far should you go to keep people in a place where there aren't many opportunities? Plans to reopen Cairo's only grocery store still haven't materialized.
Now, all of this stings for lifelong Cairo residents like Phillip Matthews, who remembers when the city had 15,000 people and a vibrant downtown. Now there are barely 2,000. But he insists Cairo is so close to getting out of this rut.
PHILLIP MATTHEWS: The reason I'm still here in the city because I know what Cairo has the ability to become and it will be.
SIEGLER: Matthews is driving on a dirt road atop a levee west of town, where a planned port authority is proposed to be built by the Mississippi River.
MATTHEWS: OK. So now you can see a better look. This is the levee. And you get a better picture, a better...
SIEGLER: The State of Illinois just earmarked a million dollars in seed money to get this port up and running. But that could take years. Town leaders say they may be close to getting a private developer to build new homes.
MATTHEWS: You would never get me to believe that this city is dying. I wouldn't give a care if 300 or 400 people leave up out of here. We can get 7,000 or 8,000 to come back.
SIEGLER: And not everyone who lived in the projects had to leave Cairo either.
NINA ELLIS: No, that's when she moves out.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: No, that's not...
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: No...
SIEGLER: Nina Ellis and her two young daughters managed to find this rental house in town with a yard. There are only a few homes still habitable here. So many are overgrown with weeds or have crumbled.
ELLIS: I don't worry about the girls as much as I used to being in the projects as far as, like, just the filthiness of, you know, the area playing.
SIEGLER: Ellis isn't originally from Cairo. But in her eight years here, she's grown to love the small-town life. It's quiet and mostly safe, even though there aren't many jobs.
ELLIS: Nobody cares about Cairo. Nobody cares. But they don't understand that this is a community of love. You know, we all come together. We are a small, knit family.
SIEGLER: Ellis landed a part-time janitor job over at the school at least. It's Cairo's largest employer. And like in a lot of emptying-out rural areas, as long as there's still a school, there's still a town.
Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Cairo, Ill. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.