When the recession swept through the United States, it hit the small city of Cairo, Illinois especially hard. Cairo had already been struggling before the real estate bubble burst, but now more than a third of its 3,600 residents live in poverty. Not only that, but the city — once a thriving river port — is now literally crumbling. Buildings are falling apart, and the infrastructure is decaying. Visual News documented the city’s haunting aesthetic in an article a few months ago.
And then something interesting happened. Reddit got wind of the city’s situation, and was moved to try to restore the city to greatness, by democratically planning the city’s economy and infrastructure — entirely online.
Reddit is one of the largest and most influential social media communities online — its millions of users vote on thousands of stories, photos and user-generated threads, and democratically decide which items then see a larger audience. It’s also known for crowd-sourcing altruism, and galvanizing its massive community to help strangers. And so, when the Reddit community began to absorb the story of Cairo, some members started thinking: What if they could pool their resources, influence, and skills to get the city back on track, through careful planning and concerted action? And so, Project Cairo was launched.
An ongoing thread on Reddit (called a Subreddit) now hosts a community of interested parties who are working to find ways to stimulate Cairo’s economy, provide it with a stable food supply, and rescue it from disrepair, all while cooperating with the city’s current population. The idea is to focus on getting food from local, sustainable sources, pool funds to buy some of the abandoned buildings (which are on sale for very low prices), provide tutoring or schooling for local children (Cairo’s young population is among the most impoverished in the nation, and literacy rates are criminally low), and start an array of business designed to cater to locals and Redditors. Finally, the plan involves a number of Redditors actually moving into Cairo to run the businesses and oversee the operation.
In other words, Project Cairo is probably the closest thing to a modern day Utopian project as we’re likely to see in the US. Not only that, but it’s been entirely democratically conceived and put into action — and it’s pretty well researched and thought out. Check out the Project Cairo’s Wiki set up by the Redditors for proof. The participants have come up with a tiered, 5-year plan to get the city running. The preliminary steps involve buying a $19,000 building, known as the Ace of Cups, and setting up an initial residence for participants to move into on the second story. The first story would be turned into a grocery store selling local foods (there are myriad farms and ranches in the region). As one project participant, rulzor, writes: “Cairo cannot be an economic miracle. The traditional economy is dead/dying all over the US. Focus on Food, Farms, Permaculture and Sustainability.”
From there, they would build the economy outward. A bike shop for cheap transportation, a microbrewery that could be housed in one of the many empty buildings, an operation called Reddit Vintage Restoration Materials LLC, which would restore salvaged materials, and put them up for sale, as well as setting up schools or tutoring services.
The most amazing aspect of the whole endeavor is the communal attitude which forms the heart of the project — Redditors have offered their property, their skills, and their services. Even those with nothing to offer are pitching in. Th8thbit wrote “I live one hour away from Cairo. I have no car, and I am poor. How can I help?”
Needless to say, it’s a pretty incredible project, and even if it never comes to fruition, we should look to what the Redditors have accomplished thus far as a model for building and planning communities in the most modern, technologically adept — and democratic — manner possible.