Uncommon Ground
Yes, Obama Lives There. But Chicago's Hyde Park Is a Place All Its Own

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.

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.

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?' "

When he was a boy, social activist Jamie Kalven lived in an apartment in a home owned by Manhattan Project chemist Harold Urey. At various times, the place was also owned by prizefighter Sonny Liston and jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal. Muhammad Ali once lived nearby and kept a pair of lions in an outdoor cage. Kalven is struck by the presence in Hyde Park of a roughly equal number of blacks and whites "for whom the fact of living together is no big deal."

Which, in a sense, is the big deal.

Political Blocks

Hyde Park is often painted as an island by residents and outsiders. The depiction extends to politics.

Democrats from Hyde Park often describe themselves as independents. In Chicago terms, that means they steer a course apart from the long-dominant, now fading, party machine. Hyde Park produced alderman Leon Despres, a corruption fighter who often found himself on the lonely end of 49-1 city council votes. It was home to Harold Washington, the anti-machine candidate elected as the city's first black mayor, and Sen. Paul H. Douglas, a social reformer and civil rights activist.

Decades ago, when the machine was far stronger, young Abner Mikva, an Obama mentor who served as a congressman, federal judge and White House counsel, tried to volunteer at the 8th Ward Regular Democratic headquarters. "We don't want nobody nobody sent," the party operative told him. When Mikva said he was from the University of Chicago and was willing to work free, the man said, "We don't want nobody from the University of Chicago in this organization."

The university is a central part of the narrative of Hyde Park as a highfalutin, arugula-eating slice of academic elitism. The U of C, as everyone calls it, boasts that 78 alumni or onetime faculty have won the Nobel Prize. That makes Hyde Park surely the only place in America where an academic and his wife, going through a divorce, would include a clause splitting future winnings if he scored the economics prize. He won, and sent her $500,000.

As with Hyde Park itself, there is an essential element of the university that reflects Obama's way of seeing the world. It has to do with the interchange of ideas, a realm in which the cerebral, pragmatic, inherently cautious Illinois senator may be at his most comfortable. University President Robert Zimmer describes an atmosphere of ferment and says, "There's a real push for people not to be overly comfortable with their assumptions."

While Zimmer talks of rigor, Chicago Public Schools Chief Arne Duncan talks of openness, idealism and accomplishment. An Obama friend and Hyde Parker to the core, Duncan says unabashedly that the Obamas "represent the best of what Hyde Park is." He considers it no coincidence that "a disproportionate number of civic leaders come out of Hyde Park."

It is ironic -- or perhaps inevitable -- that a Daumier-like caricature of Hyde Park has fueled critics and mischief-makers on opposing sides. Conservative columnist David Brooks noted the idea in some Republican circles that Obama is "some naive university-town dreamer, the second coming of Adlai Stevenson." When challenged by Obama in a 2000 House race, Rep. Bobby Rush (D), a former Black Panther, jeered that Obama "went to Harvard and became an educated fool." State Sen. Donne Trotter said Obama was seen as "the white man in blackface in our community."

This is Mr. Obama's neighborhood, where conservative law professor Epstein can cite a "slightly loopy side to Hyde Park politics" and still praise a history of "social toleration." It is the home turf of Ayers and Dohrn, whose fiery 1960s ambition to topple U.S. government gave way to roles as university professors and intense Little League coaches.

It is a place where differences are just differences.

"Hyde Park should be held up as an example of what an integrated community could be," says University of Chicago law professor M. Todd Henderson, who grew up in a white Pittsburgh suburb. "It wasn't some sort of social experiment."

Henderson says his adopted community is a place where ideas matter more than pedigree and one cannot infer social status by skin color. He says the visible hardships in nearby neighborhoods and the persistent threat of crime undermine any notion that Hyde Park is, in his words, "a fantasy land."

"To criticize Hyde Park as being aloof, out of touch and elitist is just poppycock," he says. "I'm a dyed-in-the-wool Republican, and there is nothing America should be ashamed about Hyde Park. On the contrary, America should be proud of Hyde Park."

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