The Obama Tourism Industry Is Booming in Chicago

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By Peter Slevin and Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, May 12, 2009

CHICAGO -- The man has been in the White House for only three months-and-change, but in the old neighborhood, his regular barber chair is on display like Churchill's top hat or Elvis's piano. The confirming autograph is right there in big looping letters, Barack Obama.

"He signed it. He sat in it. I'm pretty sure there's some of his DNA in it," barber Krs Golden was explaining when Betty Harris hurried into the Hyde Park Hair Salon and asked whether there were any Obama souvenirs for sale.

There was nothing to buy, but the Seattle visitor who called herself "Grandmama for Obama" when she was a campaign volunteer walked out with a few snapshots in her camera, including one with Zariff, the president's barber, who goes by one name.

"People come in from all over the country," Golden said. "They're in awe."

Obama tourism in the president's home town is growing as visitors search for signs of his personality in places where he lived, worked, walked, dined, played hoops -- and first kissed his wife, Michelle. Enterprising business people are rising to meet the demand and nudge it along.

"We realized in November that this was going to be huge," says Marsha Goldstein, whose tour company, My Kind of Town, includes the Obamas in its South Side spiel. "A lot of the questions we get are: 'Now that he's president, who is he?' They want good stories. They want good sites and they want a good experience. They want to feel they got closer."

Chicago has long been the touchstone for the Obamas, who first dated here in the early 1990s and lived nowhere else until they moved to the White House. Their closest friends are here, at least the ones who haven't moved to Washington, and the narrative of their political rise is anchored in the city that now flies banners with Obama's image.

The Obamas talked up the city during the campaign as a sign of their rootedness, and their appreciation of the Windy City has played in many audiences as a sign of urban cool. Now the city is getting something back.

"It's PR and advertising that you can't buy," said Jan Kostner, the deputy director of the Illinois Bureau of Tourism, noting that the city and state have created an Obama Trail for visitors to track his career. "We're marketing it."

Chicago's tourism office has trained 30 volunteers to lead Obama tours. On Saturdays starting next month, a greeter will be posted in Obama's former Hyde Park neighborhood to direct walking tours that will also include Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House and the University of Chicago.

It is impossible to quantify the Obama effect in a city so large and touristed, but at least 15 Chicago companies that conduct tours for conventioneers, students and tourists have added Obama stops or an entire Obama tour to their offerings. Most expect demand to increase as summer nears.

Leslie Hairston, a Chicago alderman, has seen more foot traffic in her neighborhood and expects it to increase in the summer. When relatives are visiting, she said, "they want to drive by his house, eat breakfast at Valois and walk through the neighborhood where he and Michelle used to live."

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© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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