Uncommon Ground

The Chicago-area community that counts the presidential candidate as its most famous resident is anything but mainstream.
By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 16, 2008


No American president has been elected from a place quite like Hyde Park, the home of Sen. Barack Obama. Among the community's notable features are a university famous for intellectualism, a pair of 1960s Weather Underground radicals famous for being unrepentant and a bloc of voters famous for choosing Sen. John Kerry over President Bush by 19 to 1.

Judging by the swift demonization, Obama might as well live at the corner of Liberal and Kumbaya. Republican strategist Karl Rove placed Hyde Park alongside Cambridge, Mass., and San Francisco in a triad of leftist tomfoolery. The Weekly Standard, recalling Obama's description of former Weatherman Bill Ayers as merely "a guy who lives in my neighborhood," asked who lives in a neighborhood like that.

Hyde Park in real life is not so easily typecast. The political ethic is proudly progressive on matters of race and social justice, yet the community is anchored by the University of Chicago, an incubator for some of the nation's most influential conservatives, from Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia to Nobel Prize-winning free marketeer Milton Friedman.

Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan lives within four blocks of Obama's $1.6 million home, as do former Weather Underground members Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn. Yet so does Richard Epstein, a prominent libertarian law professor who is quick to say he is friends with Scalia and Ayers -- and once tried to hire Dohrn.

"I don't consider myself a Chicagoan," Epstein explains. "I consider myself a Hyde Parker."

To be a Hyde Parker, dozens of residents say, is to choose to live in a community that considers variations of race, creed, wealth and politics to be a neighborhood selling point, like bicycle paths or broadband in a far suburb. Finishing breakfast at the Valois Cafeteria, retired utility worker Dwight Lewis points to a woman selling StreetWise, a newspaper written by homeless people.

"You've got people who have nothing to people who have everything," he says. "You've got people living on the street to people who have homes worth several million dollars."

For Hyde Park's most famous resident, who wants to be seen as distinctive but unthreatening, his chosen turf represents the political eclecticism and sense of post-racial possibility at the heart of his personality and campaign. Yet as Obama is learning, the narrative cuts both ways. To no one's surprise, Sen. John McCain and his supporters have pushed the idea, echoed by early surveys, that Obama is a risky choice, that he is somehow just too exotic, too erudite -- and did we mention naive? He bodysurfs in Hawaii, he orders green tea ice cream in Oregon, he writes his own books in deft prose, his name is Barack Obama.

"This is not a man who sees America as you and I do, as the greatest force for good in the world," says Gov. Sarah Palin, McCain's tart-tongued running mate, who grounds her own narrative in the recently paved roads of an Alaskan town 1/500th the size of Chicago.

Palin would no doubt beg to differ, but Obama friend and lifelong resident Valerie Jarrett puts it this way: "Hyde Park is the real world as it should be. If we could take Hyde Park and we could help make more Hyde Parks around our country, I think we would be a much stronger country."

Blueprint of Diversity

Mainstream, as mainstream is commonly defined, is not Hyde Park.

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