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.