CHICAGO — With only days left in the Obama presidency, Cheryl Johnson sat in front of her computer and struggled to compose a letter to the man she called Barack.
It had been decades since she last talked to him — since Obama’s days as a community organizer here in Altgeld Gardens, one of Chicago’s most desolate public housing projects. In the years since, things in Altgeld had not much improved. Looking ahead, Johnson feared, they could get worse.
She had written Obama before and gotten no response — about Altgeld’s pollution problems, its child initiatives, its funding battles. Now, with time running out, Johnson, 55, decided to try one last time.
“I’m struggling because I don’t know how to get to him, how to move him,” she said in front of her computer. “I’m struggling, I guess, because after all this time, I wonder does he really care? Or is this just a waste of my ink?”
As the age of Obama draws to a close, pundits are already debating his legacy. Political successors in both parties are fighting to abolish or save his policies. And Obama himself is preparing to deliver a final speech Tuesday at McCormick Place in downtown Chicago.
But 16 miles south, in the Chicago housing project where Obama made his first attempt at public service, unresolved feelings run deep about the first black president and what exactly the past eight years have meant.
Altgeld’s residents — almost all African American — are fiercely proud of what Obama has accomplished and of the improbable role they played in his journey. But they are also frustrated that Obama has not done more for desperate communities like theirs, and they fear what may happen under President-elect Trump.
Capturing all that in a letter — the emotion, fear, frustration — seemed impossible to Johnson as she stared at her computer screen.
“I don’t blame him. There’s only so much one man can do,” she said. “But there’s still time, you know? He hasn’t left office yet.”
She decided to keep her letter simple.
“We residents of Altgeld Gardens need your immediate attention to save 244 housing units from being destroyed,” she wrote. “We the residents of Altgeld are asking you as a last hope.”
Altgeld Gardens began as a community of hope. Row upon row of two-story apartment buildings, the project was built in 1945 to house black veterans returning from World War II.
It was plagued by problems almost immediately.
For years, nearby steel mills and industrial plants sowed the land with toxic waste. The factories and jobs are long gone, but the chemicals, slag and oil remain. The neighborhood is cut off from the rest of the city by landfills, the heavily polluted Little Calumet River and a sewage treatment plant. Its sweet, putrid fumes hit Altgeld with varying intensity depending on the direction of the wind.
Residents call it “the Gardens.” The irony of that name struck Obama when he arrived as a 24-year-old community organizer.
“Everything about the Gardens seemed in a perpetual state of disrepair,” Obama wrote in his book “Dreams From My Father.” “Ceilings crumbled. Pipes burst. Toilets backed up.”
In the book, Obama described a pervading sense of hopelessness among residents, as well as a deep distrust of outsiders. Johnson’s mother, Hazel Johnson, was one of several older women who helped Obama gain traction. Hazel Johnson had been documenting health problems at Altgeld since her husband died of lung cancer in 1969. She founded a community nonprofit group and pushed officials until her death in 2011 to clean up the toxic environment.
Cheryl Johnson was a nursing student when Obama arrived, and she remembers watching him and her mother strategizing many nights at her kitchen table. They made an odd pair, she said: “He was in his 20s. She was in her 40s. But they learned off each other.”
Obama’s most publicized work from that time involved a fight to remove asbestos from the units. Despite Hazel Johnson’s work on the issue, Obama never mentioned her in the book, a slight that still eats at the daughter.
But Obama acknowledged the deep effect Altgeld’s residents had on him, writing of a bus ride back south after a heated confrontation with downtown housing officials.
“I changed as a result of that bus trip, in a fundamental way,” Obama wrote. “It was the sort of change that’s important not because it alters your concrete circumstances in some way (wealth, security, fame) but because it hints at what might be possible. . . . That bus ride kept me going, I think. Maybe it still does.”
Today, few physical reminders of Obama remain in Altgeld. His picture is taped up in the liquor store, the project’s sole remaining business. The grainy black-and-white photocopy is stuck to a glass barrier that protects the clerk.
Still, memories of Obama loom large. People talk about the closet-size library he fought to expand, how he used to stand outside the now-defunct Catholic school and pass out fliers. They talk about what he came to represent as he ran for state senate, then the U.S. Senate, then the White House. They talk about how people ran out of their homes on Election Day in 2008, how they cheered and danced and hugged one another like it was New Year’s Day.
But they also talk about their disillusionment, even bitterness, about the past eight years.
“It was like we finally got a voice, you know? But we saw the ugly flip side of that, too,” said Theresa Hollins, 56. “You look at the election we just had and all the Muslims and minorities suddenly being attacked. You don’t think that has anything to do with the fact that a black man has been our president?”
Hollins raised 10 children in Altgeld — her own, plus foster kids and a few left to her by relatives and neighbors. Since Obama became president, she has purchased every Christmas ornament issued by the White House. She keeps an expensive Michelle Obama doll, dressed in a reproduction inaugural ball gown with genuine Swarovski crystals, in her living-room cabinet.
But Hollins expressed frustration with Obama’s insistence that he had to be president for all people, not just for African Americans. “It’s like there was only so much he could do for people like us, even if he knew the problems exactly.”
And, in a quieter voice, Hollins expressed disillusionment with Obama himself. Lately, she has been thinking about the last time he visited Altgeld, as a presidential candidate in 2008. With a network news crew in tow, he stopped by the local school, Our Lady of the Gardens, to pose with the children. Some residents recall Obama saying that he’d come back to see them when he was president.
He never did, they said, and it hurts.
“So many folks, they come out here and use us as a steppingstone,” Hollins said. “You got school principals, nonprofits, even the Catholic church. They all come out here for a little bit and do their time. And then, they’re out of here. We are a line in their résumé on their way to something else.”
On a stoop near Hollins’s apartment, three men on tattered chairs took turns swigging beers late into the night.
It wasn’t that Obama didn’t do anything to help communities like theirs, they said. “I bet every person here is better off because of Obamacare, because of what he did to save the hellhole of an economy they handed him,” said one man, Hugh Midderhoff.
But Midderhoff, 56, a factory worker at a nearby Ford plant, said people here have come to a frightening realization.
“After all these years, after all that we’ve been through as a race, as a country, we finally got a black man into office and what did it do? What has it really changed? Our schools? The cops? Courts? The rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer?” he said.
“It doesn’t feel any less rigged than before. If a black president can’t change that, what will?”
With 1,787 units, Altgeld is the largest public housing project left in Chicago. Since Obama’s days as a community organizer, the city’s most notorious projects — many located on valuable land close to downtown — have been demolished and replaced with mixed-income housing.
Last year, housing authorities announced plans to demolish 244 decrepit units in Altgeld as part of a revitalization plan that has already seen hundreds of apartments rehabilitated. The demolition would make way for bike trails and commercial development, officials say, but some residents oppose it.
For now, Altgeld remains as isolated as ever. For many, the only means of transportation is the single bus line that serves the project. The neighborhood lost its only high school years ago.
Outside the liquor store, names of dead residents are scrawled on a “wall of death.” Years ago, the names tended to be victims of cancer and other suspicious ailments. These days, most are victims of gunfire.
“We don’t get drive-by shootings, we get walk-ups. Cause the boys out here can’t afford no cars,” said Marguerite Jacobs, 61, who has been caught in the crossfire three times in the past two years.
Cheryl Johnson now runs her late mother’s nonprofit organization. Lately, she’s been thinking about the old days and Obama’s last visit to bid her mother farewell before leaving for Harvard Law School.
Obama told her mother that he needed to learn how to create change at a higher level, she said, in order to help folks like the people at Altgeld.
“I wonder sometimes, did that actually happen? Did he fulfill that promise? I don’t know,” Johnson said.
“But I love him for what he came to represent. For the symbol he became for a lot of people, of hope.”
Two weeks ago, Johnson finally finished her letter to Obama, two pages that mentioned that visit and Obama’s implicit promise. Johnson brought the letter to a meeting of local leaders invited to discuss Obama’s presidential library, which will be built in Chicago. She gave it to one of the organizers.
She has no idea whether the letter will reach the president.
“I’m praying it does. You can’t think negative, you know?” she said. “The only way to move forward is to hang onto hope.”