Thursday, June 23, 2016

THE FUTURE DEPENDS ON WHAT YOU DO TODAY

(originally published December 1990)

FUTURE CITY, Ill. -- First and Broadway. It sounds so uptown, so chic, a place for swank boutiques and restaurant. Especially in a place called Future City.

Someone's trash is scattered in the intersection.

Poverty, not posh, reigns in Future City, an encampment of about 100 people on the north edge of Cairo — that's CARE-oh. Most homes are ramshackle. Roads are covered with pea gravel. There are no curbs, no sidewalks. No future.

It wasn't always this way. Once upon a time, Future City was 10 times its current size, a boomer with cotton gins, stores and bars. But one by one, the stores closed and the people moved away. Now all that's left are retirees and those too poor to relocate.

"Kids grow up, they leave," says Lillian Thompson, 84. She lives in a decaying mobile home with Aaron Mohn. He's 55. He looks much older. They don't blame anyone for fleeing the squalor of Future City, a place where a white kitten, fur matted with filth, eats garbage next to a rusted sign: "$50 fine for littering."

Future City is where the New Madrid fault begins its serpentine path southward. The ground here is soft, sandy. A strong earthquake would probably turn the sand to soup; one county official says Future City would sink out of sight.

There is a sense that very few people would care. Future City is small, poor. It is also overwhelmingly black, and this is more than an insignificant aside. All along the New Madrid fault, racism is a reality.

When people worry about looting, they talk about "niggers" and "coloreds." In a New Madrid bar, a hand-lettered handbill featuring the face of Buckwheat offers bogus "Buck Beer." Asked about Future City, a sheriff's department dispatcher discourages a reporter from traveling there: "It's nothing but blacks and slums."

Ray Johnson, a resident, says no one cares. "This is the Gateway to the South, you know. I spent a couple of years on the East Coast — New Jersey — and a word I seldom heard was 'nigger.' But I hear it here."

Adds Thompson: "I don't know anyone here who doesn't want it to be better. But who's going to make it better? Not the people in Cairo. No, sir."

The chairman of the county board denies racism is the reason for the despair in Future City. Instead, Louis Maze blames high unemployment. One in every five Alexander County residents is out of work, he says. In Future City, unemployment is almost 100 percent.

"We all know the people in Future City. We get along with them well," Maze says. "And we've got a black treasurer and blacks in the sheriff's department."

Only an infusion of new businesses will save Future City, Maze says. "Factories can come in, they can give them jobs and those people can better themselves." But no one in Future City believes that will happen, and they don't seem willing to make it happen, either. The only solution, they say, is to wait -- wait and hope that attitudes change, that times get better, that white people along the New Madrid fault begin to think twice before automatically assuming an earthquake will create an army of rampaging black looters.

Aaron Mohn turns back to his black-and-white television and fiddles with the antenna wrapped in aluminum foil. Outside the mobile home, waist-high weeds sway in the wind. The kitten turns its attention to a mouldering Kentucky Fried Chicken box.

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