Old Obama acquaintance voices South Side’s disillusionment with his former ally
By Michael Leahy,
CHICAGO — He still walks the same streets here as his old acquaintance Barack Obama once did. That is about all they have in common anymore. At 50, Chicago activist Mark Allen lives with his parents, barely able to pay his bills. The head of a small, community-assistance organization called Black Wall Street Chicago, Allen regards his personal survival alone as a small victory, grateful he can pay the rent on his modest office space, aware he is doing better than many on this city’s restive South Side.
“Things haven’t gone the way we’d hoped after Barack got elected,” he says. Surveys place unemployment rates above 25 percent here, and indications are that South Side residents such as Allen aren’t nearly as passionate about the 2012 election as they were during Obama’s trailblazing 2008 campaign.
Historically, community organizers such as Allen have wielded outsize influence in the black-majority neighborhoods of the South Side, with none better known than Obama, who directed a group called the Developing Communities Project for three years during the 1980s. But old bonds between the two have frayed. Allen, who as a member of another group worked on community issues with Obama during their organizing days, has grown frustrated with his former ally in the Oval Office.
Obama’s much ballyhooed 2009 stimulus package has failed to touch ordinary South Side residents, says Allen, who has reached out to Obama administration officials, including fellow Chicagoan and prominent White House adviser Valerie Jarrett, to express his dismay. He wants red tape cut, and he wants to see more business loans for the area and more jobs for local residents on construction and infrastructure projects.
Allen, who views the South Side’s pain as common to U.S. inner cities, also offers a political warning for Obama’s campaign strategists. The disillusionment of once fierce Obama admirers, he suggests, may hamper the president’s reelection chances by subtly dampening black voter turnout.
“His people should’ve done something more about it by now,” he says. “But that’s Barack’s problem, not mine.”
Besides, he couldn’t care less about politics at the moment, he adds. It explains why he is hurrying past a portrait of Obama and out of his office. He steps onto the streets of the largely African American community of Bronzeville, which occupies a special place in the South Side psyche. Bronzeville was a jewel during the first half of the 20th century, when black-owned businesses accounted for a thriving commercial district, and a vibrant nightlife sparkling with renowned jazz clubs drew legendary headliners, including Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. The “Black Wall Street,” residents regularly called the community then, which inspired the name Allen embraced for his organization. Nowadays, the glamorous clubs and bustling businesses are almost all gone.
Although some new smaller clubs and a cultural center stand nearby, jobs are as scarce as ever. The place evokes the gritty despair famously memorialized during the last century in Gwendolyn Brooks’s first collection of poems, “A Street in Bronzeville.” At this moment, men down the street, near an “L” train stop, are furtively plying their street trades. Standing on a street corner, a quiet Allen is taking in the scene when someone howls his name.
He wheels around to see a short man in a sweat-streaked tank top and torn jeans. He warily looks him over.
“Allen?” the man yells. “You Allen, right? It’s me, man. It’s Shorty.”
Allen languidly nods. “Hey, man.” He leans forward and taps 44-year-old William “Shorty” Strand on the shoulder. The two haven’t seen each other in about 20 years, not since they worked together at the same activist organization. Allen is thinking that this man with the hooded eyes and thin silver whiskers looks like a worn-down man at midlife.
“You know how it is, man,” Shorty says. “I could use a few dollars.”
“Don’t stretch me out, Shorty,” Allen says, reluctant to hand over any money, given how thin his own wallet has been stretched. He gives him two bucks anyway.
“I need some work,” Shorty says, explaining that he has been doing odd jobs, lawn work and landscaping mostly. He has been sleeping at the apartment of some friends. He is hanging on, but just barely. “I need a job,” he repeats, more urgently.
Allen says he’ll keep his ears open. As a grateful Shorty trudges off, Allen mutters, “Where’s the stimulus for a guy like Shorty?”
It is a frustrated reference to the Obama administration’s $800 billion stimulus package, which has awarded $11.9 billion to Illinois’s public and private sectors since early 2009, according to administration statistics, and created jobs for about 3,900 Illinoisans in the last quarter alone. But not for many South Siders, Allen says.
“We haven’t seen much of the stimulus trickle down to our people here,” he says. “Sure, you see the signs saying that some road or construction project is being done near here with stimulus funds. But when you look at the people working on them . . . you see one or two community people maybe, like the guy who holds the ‘drive slowly’ sign for the [motorists] passing by.”
It is a common complaint among local activists and community leaders. South Side critics point to road and construction crews that are overwhelmingly white and from outside their neighborhoods. This summer, Bobby L. Rush (D), a South Side congressman probably best known for having defeated an upstart Obama in a congressional primary 12 years ago, balked at a $133 million rail project, financed in substantial part by stimulus funds, after learning that the only jobs committed to local African Americans had stemmed from a $120,000 security contract. Even after Rush recently said that he had negotiated an agreement with the project’s principal contractor on employment opportunities for South Side residents, local activists were roundly skeptical, insisting nothing had been guaranteed, as Rush had yet to release a written agreement.
Meanwhile, administration defenders point out that the stimulus law was never chiefly designed as an infrastructure program. Most of the stimulus money has gone to the kinds of initiatives principally designed to stoke consumer demand, bolster the social safety net and preserve existing jobs: tax credits for lower- and middle-income families, more public education funding, additional assistance to Medicaid.
Asked about the South Side’s struggles amid the stimulus program, the White House referred to modest economic gains in the community and nationally.
“When President Obama took office, the economy was losing almost a million private sector jobs per month,” said Matt Lehrich, a White House spokesman. “. . . While much work remains, we now have 29 straight months of private-sector job creation.” The Recovery Act, Lehrich added, was “designed to have maximum economic impact and benefit those who needed it most, even if that meant folks didn’t always realize the help they were getting was from the Recovery Act.”
Allen views the South Side’s jobless and its struggling entrepreneurs as having been overlooked. “The president tells people, ‘We’re trying to ease the barriers,’ ” Allen says. “But I’d say to Barack: People around places like this elected you on one promise, to bring hope and change to a community like this. Look around. . . . What’s really changed?”
Allen recalls that he had gone around the nearby community of Roseland with Obama during their community organizing days, when Allen worked for Operation PUSH, a Chicago-based group led by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. The two young activists lobbied for more community input at local meetings, recounts Allen, a recollection that prompted a White House spokesperson to say that it is likely the two were at some meetings together. “He was smart, and he was impatient with red tape,” Allen recalls of the young Obama. “I liked the community organizer Obama better than President Obama. . . . Democrats say Barack has got 90 percent or whatever of the black vote wrapped up. What they don’t tell you is it’s 90 percent of those who actually come out and vote. . . . What if it’s 90 percent of just 30 or 40 percent who vote?”
With no great hope that Washington will provide additional help anytime soon, Allen’s organization is principally focused on aiding small-business owners struggling to get ventures off the ground. His organization makes available office space, in the form of cubicles, for budding entrepreneurs who are looking for capital, workers and affordable places to house businesses. He assists the dreamers in the sometimes confounding process of applying for commercial loans and government grants, and he must occasionally guide them through the frustrations of credit repair. Always, he says, he is looking to pair them with local potential investors who have already made it, but the ranks of the winners are small. In the meantime, he tries to find any part-time jobs for the desperate. It is a grind.
“We need loosened credit from Barack’s people; we need strings untied. Not easy,” he says.
He hasn’t completely given up on lobbying the administration for help. He has expressed his frustrations in an e-mail to Jarrett, who, he says, politely answered that the administration thinks that it has been appropriately responsive to the community (the White House says it has no reason to doubt that the two were in contact with each other). He says he has not heard back from Obama strategist David Plouffe, to whom he also sent a note. And he says he has met with Ken Bennett, a Chicago-based Department of Labor official, to see what can be done to get more residents working on South Side projects supported by stimulus dollars. “I’m trying to be a bridge here,” he says.
Back in his office, Allen shares his frustrations with other activists, including a young firebrand named Mark Carter who, within the past year, has formed a new political party, dubbed the Broke Party, part of a protest against the Obama administration and mainstream politics in general. At this moment, the two men are struggling to come up with the names of South Side African Americans who have clout with the Obama administration — those who can get meaningful funding, in contrast with the impotence that they think characterizes the lives of most South Side residents. One name comes up that elicits nods: Richard Tolliver.
Carter smiles wanly. “Tolliver is big,” Carter says. “Be nice to have his connections.”
Funding for some groups
Tolliver is a prominent Episcopalian priest and the chief executive of the St. Edmund’s Redevelopment Corp., which is in Washington Park, a neighborhood a few miles from Bronzeville. Since its creation in 1990, it has been responsible for the development of about 600 housing units in 28 buildings, largely for a mix of poor and working-class residents.
The reliability of St. Edmund’s has proven alluring to donors: For two decades, the corporation’s funding has principally come from government grants and philanthropic organizations. Since Obama entered the White House, St. Edmund’s has been the recipient of millions in stimulus money and other federal funding, which has gone toward new buildings that have set aside units for low-income earners and the elderly.
The photographs of luminaries in Tolliver’s office bespeak his clout. The most prominent pictures are those of Tolliver with Obama. The 67-year-old reverend proudly points to a photo of the two engaged in conversation during a recent Obama fundraiser. “He knows of my work,” Tolliver says, smiling. “He asked, ‘How are things going?’ We were just two people talking. Very relaxed.”
The St. Edmund’s story reflects the success of several South Side groups in accessing government funds from the Obama administration, typically established groups that have enjoyed federal support in the past. What irks Allen and other activists isn’t Tolliver’s success, but the inability of newer groups on the South Side, those without long track records, to lay claim to stimulus dollars and grants.
Tolliver is keenly aware of his status. He says with pride that St. Edmund’s has been the only community development corporation in Chicago to receive three different sources of federal funding from the Obama administration for housing construction.
“People like to support winners,” he explains, pointing to the upside of the influence of St. Edmund’s: “Some of our poor and elderly receive quality housing. How is that anything but good?”
But on some points, Tolliver sympathizes with critics such as Allen. He sees persistent obstacles to training and hiring opportunities for large numbers of local residents, especially those who have spent time in prison. Overall, Tolliver says, he is in agreement with skeptics who contend that the lives of too few local residents have been touched by the stimulus package.
“It wasn’t big enough to begin with . . . as economists say. . . . It didn’t trickle down to enough people here and in other cities,” he says.
Still, the loyalist Tolliver thinks political opponents, particularly congressional Republicans, have unfairly constrained the president. Moreover, he regards Obama as a victim of supporters’ huge expectations.
“It’s been difficult, but what the administration has done for us and some others shows they are trying hard,” he says.
‘I need to see something more’
Back in Bronzeville, in his office on a recent Friday, Allen is on the phone. It is the end of a long week, further complicated when he had to rush to the bank because the check for his phone bill had not cleared. “Looky here,” he says to his caller, a Bronzeville resident trying to help someone else. “I know he needs work. You don’t think I know? I’ll see what I can do.”
A visitor arrives, Harold Lucas, the 70-year-old director of the Bronzeville Visitor Information Center and a passionate Obama supporter in 2008, when he sold Obama buttons and bumpers stickers. Lucas projects a cautiously optimistic air about some of the stimulus projects in the pipeline for Chicago. But, joined by a seething Carter, he has the same worries about jobs as other community leaders in Bronzeville. “I like the president,” Lucas says. “But I need to see something more happening here.”
Carter, who has been listening, wearing his Broke Party T-shirt, begins talking in a rush about Obama being part of “the 1 percenters.”
“The 1 percenters,” Lucas says softly, trying out the phrase. “Which makes us the 99 percenters, I guess.”
“Damn right,” Carter says.
Allen just watches them.
“The 1 percenters,” Lucas repeats, looking at Allen and then gesturing at the young renegade. “It’s painful for me to hear [Carter] say these things. . . . But I can’t argue with it. What you have here are three generations of the 99 percenters within the African American community. Within four years of the president’s election, we all feel like we’re disenfranchised and on the outside. . . . This close to the election, that’s a problem for the president. Can’t have people stay at home.”
Carter mutters an obscenity about the election. He looks at Allen and points a finger at him. “I’m not going to deny the truth or be lulled to sleep just because it’s Obama. You understand? I’m pointing a finger at Obama and . . .”
“Hey,” Allen interrupts, smiling. He carves out his survival by playing conciliator among the hot and the hotter. “I’m just trying to connect the dots here, okay? Maybe get something done.”
“I’m for that,” Lucas says, laughing. With that, their meeting winds down.
It’s late in the afternoon, and Allen hurries downstairs, talking on his cellphone, promising yet another caller that he’ll help him with a job search while assuring an acquaintance that he’ll put $100 in his pocket by day’s end. He hangs up. “Poor guy is broke and got his car towed,” he says. “He did some work for me. I’ve got to get the money for him before the bank closes. Maybe get some donations.”
By the time he reaches the sidewalk, Allen is breathing hard. “A rough week,” he says. A car pulls up, another indignity: He is bumming a ride from a friend to the bank. But it is then that he says he sees it, a real benefit to his ragtag crusader’s life, some advantage — maybe the only one he enjoys — over an old comrade who once traveled these roads with him.
“I don’t get to ride in jets and motorcades like him with sirens going off,” he says. “But I get to see these streets as they really are. I’m always seeing the Shortys.”