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Uncommon Ground

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

In 1993, two years after his return from Harvard Law School, Obama bought a 2,200-square-foot condominium in an integrated Hyde Park complex called East View Park with his wife Michelle, raised in nearby South Shore. They lived there through his first half-dozen campaigns and much of his tenure as a constitutional law professor at the University of Chicago. Their two daughters spent their early years there, Michelle soon commuting to work at a series of university outreach jobs.

In 2005, the family moved to a house with six bedrooms and four fireplaces across the street from a synagogue. They live on a street of tall trees and landscaped lawns in the neighborhood of Kenwood, which extends four blocks north of Hyde Park but is commonly considered part of the greater Hyde Park community.

Until his life was subsumed by the presidential campaign, Obama shopped at the local food co-op, browsed the stacks at 57th Street Books and hung out with his girls at the playground. He continues to wear a tattered Chicago White Sox cap and get his hair cut at a busy salon where his longtime barber, known by the single name Zariff, says, "You have to be yourself when you come in here."

A few blocks from Obama's home, the Currency Exchange cashes paychecks only steps from an Aveda shop. A pita restaurant's bulletin board carries notes for Tri Yoga, Ken's Klean Kuts and the Temple of Mercy Association Annual International Marcus Garvey 2008 Parade.

Valois Cafeteria, the anti-Starbucks, is packed at breakfast with transport workers cheek by jowl with businessmen studying their Wall Street Journals. Each Wednesday, a dozen retired black men get together to jaw. One day, hearing that Republicans are branding Obama and his home turf as elitist, they take up the question.

"Most all of us in this room, we pulled ourselves up by the bootstraps," explains Sandy Roach, a chemist. "We got student loans, worked our way through college. We don't have any George Bushes, nobody born with silver spoons in our mouths."

Nodding toward his friends, Charles Doty says, "You can find a rocket scientist and a fellow who can teach you how to shoot dice."

Ask anyone: Hyde Park is all about the mix.

"It shaped us, our careers and our personalities," says Alison P. Ranney, a white businesswoman. "In some ways, you don't realize until you leave how special it is."

Ranney was 9 years old in the 1970s when her family left Hyde Park and moved to a coal-mining town in southern Illinois. At the new school, fourth-graders who had heard she was from Chicago kept asking whether she actually went to school with black children. Of course she did, and what of it? She remembers coming home from her first day of school and asking her mother, "Is there something you haven't been telling me about black people?"

The 700 students at the public William H. Ray Elementary School are "diverse in every way imaginable," says principal Bernadette Butler. The variety of students at the private University of Chicago Laboratory Schools served as models for the inquisitive, multicultural 12-year-old protagonists in Blue Balliett's best-selling novel, "Chasing Vermeer." Balliett taught writing at Lab, where Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens graduated and Langston Hughes was once artist in residence. Malia and Sasha Obama are students there, and Michelle Obama sits on the board.

"It's a place where you can be who you are and bring any kind of diversity to the table and be celebrated for it. Kids really can grow up in Hyde Park and never hear a negative conversation about those differences," Balliett says over lunch at Medici, a local hangout with carved-up wooden tables and a racially diverse clientele. "My son used to say, 'How come we aren't at least Jewish and Christian?' "

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