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Uncommon Ground

The Chicago-area community that counts the presidential candidate as its most famous resident is anything but mainstream.

The average white metropolitan resident lives in a neighborhood 80 percent white and only 7 percent black, says Northwestern University professor Mary Pattillo, who calls Hyde Park "anomalous for whites." Census tracts in the exurbs and the countryside tend to be even whiter.

By contrast, the 2000 census found that 43.5 percent of the 29,000 residents in Hyde Park proper called themselves white, 37.7 percent black, 11.3 percent Asian and 4.1 percent Hispanic. Another 3.4 percent answered "other." In economic terms, there are plenty of six-figure earners, yet one in six residents lives in poverty. The median household income is about $45,000, roughly the national average.

"Given all this," Pattillo says, "you can better understand the foreignness of a place like Hyde Park."

Hyde Park sprang from open space along Lake Michigan in the mid-1800s as new train service attracted seaside vacationers and well-to-do residents of boomtime Chicago. In 1892, John D. Rockefeller bankrolled an upstart university and, one year later, the area hosted the World's Columbian Exposition, which helped put the Windy City on the map.

By the early 1900s, Hyde Park had a growing Jewish population that expanded with the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe. The area also became a rare island where middle-class black people could aspire to live.

By the 1940s, fear among some whites of the growing numbers of black families produced a bitter fight over race. The University of Chicago, saying it was trying to maintain safe surroundings, backed restrictive covenants as well as white neighborhood groups intent on barring blacks.

When the Supreme Court banned racial covenants in 1948, university leaders feared white flight and an influx of poor blacks from surrounding neighborhoods. They hammered home a 1950s urban renewal plan that displaced thousands. The idea, wrote historian Arnold R. Hirsch, was to generate real estate prices high enough to "regulate both the number and 'quality' of blacks remaining."

This prompted the joke that Hyde Park, for all of its pride about racial integration, was a case of "black and white together, working shoulder to shoulder against the poor." Yet the strategy worked as the university had hoped, says Timuel Black, 89, a longtime political activist. Sufficient numbers of middle-class whites and blacks stayed to preserve the community's multiracial core.

"When whites found out that blacks were just like them," Black recalls with a wry smile, "acceptance was very easy."

As it happens, Obama is trying to lead white voters to that same conclusion.

All About the Mix

Hyde Park was the first place Obama alighted in 1985 when he became a $1,000-a-month community organizer. He chose a cheap apartment in the Chicago neighborhood that best reflected his own urban, multiethnic politics and lifestyle. He listened to jazz, swam in the lake and drove his clunker to the impoverished far South Side.

"That's the kind of place Barack felt most at home," says Chicago Tribune writer Don Terry, who grew up in a mulitracial family in Hyde Park.

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