CHICAGO — As President Obama said farewell on Chicago’s lakefront Tuesday, not far from where he accepted the election results eight years ago in Grant Park, Erik Laudermilk, 36, ran a pair of clippers along the top of a man’s head and watched from a television on the wall of his barbershop.
He, like many living on the “Black Belt” of Chicago’s South Side, says that Obama’s presidency was inspirational — not just because he was the first African American U.S. president but because he went to the White House from their part of town, a fiercely proud place that, in some pockets, struggles with problems of street violence and crumbling infrastructure.
“It shows us we have to clean up our own city, especially because we produced a two-time president,” he says.
Despite his community work two decades ago in other neighborhoods like Altgeld Gardens, Obama is especially loved in Bronzeville, the historic black neighborhood of Chicago that was ground zero for the Great Migration of African Americans from the South early last century and that was home to other prominent figures like Louis Armstrong, Richard Wright and Muddy Waters. Throughout this neighborhood of stately greystones and majestic churches are street murals depicting the president, who still owns a home within walking distance in neighboring Kenwood.
On Tuesday, the president’s speech could be seen through the windows of Bronzeville restaurants, barbershops, gas stations and even a nightclub. Renaissance, a local hotspot, paused the music for two hours for the speech. About 200 people leaned on sofas and pressed against the bar to watch on the club’s eight television screens.
Owner Shun Dyes, 46, said he, like many who watched in silence, were “sad” to see Obama leave office. “He’s Chicago’s own and he’s our son,” he said. “Our favorite son.”
Steps away, at the Harold Washington Cultural Center, named after the late Chicago mayor who was the first African American to hold that office, about 300 schoolchildren, from age 7 to 18, watched the speech from an auditorium with their parents. The lobby was outfitted like a birthday party — binders holding dozens of magazines that featured either the president or first lady Michelle Obama for people to leaf through, and “vision boards,” craft projects where children wrote messages or made collage art about how Obama’s presidency inspired them personally.
“I was raised being told ‘one day you too can be president’ but in reality it didn’t seem possible. Now it’s more than just a dream, it is a reality,” said Bril Barett, 41, a dancer who runs programs at the center.
Afterward, the children spilled into the lobby to eat several cakes adorned with pictures of Obama.
Jimalita Tillman-Hunter, 41, who organized the event, said that it was intended to raise awareness among local children of the historic significance of Obama’s presidency. “This is my way of giving them their Dr. King moment,” she said.
Sixteen-year-old Keath Carter said Obama is the only U.S. president he can recall in his life. Dressed in a red bow tie and white shirt, the teenager says that Obama is a kind of “father figure” because of the positive values he promoted during his presidency. This is especially poignant growing up in Auburn-Gresham, one of the South Side neighborhoods that has been under siege by street violence.
“Inspiration is a tool that can spark new beginnings. That’s what Barack Obama is to me,” he said.
For most people here, Obama ending his presidency this month is profoundly personal. They were used to lining up along the sidewalk to welcome his motorcade home as it made its traditional run on 47th Street past the statue of Washington, whose historic campaign Obama said was the reason he decided to move to Chicago in the first place. Because of the tight-knit nature of the neighborhood, many have personal memories of bumping into the Obamas when they lived nearby, just as they would any neighbors.
Rodney McGill, 58, an IT engineer who once lived a block from Obama’s house, said he frequently ran into the president at Valois, a nearby cafeteria where, on Tuesday, Obama dined before heading to McCormick Place to give his speech. “I saw him a lot. He was very approachable,” he said.
It is uncertain if the Obamas will keep their house in Hyde Park now that they have announced their plans to remain in Washington for the time being. However, Obama’s ties to the neighborhood will remain in place because of the Obama Presidential Center, the presidential library set for construction in nearby Jackson Park.
Nekita Thomas, 36, said she brought her 10-year-old son to watch the speech with other children because he refused to believe the president was from Chicago. As he munched on cake afterwards, Thomas said it was important to her that her son understand that the president came from their neighborhood.
As for coming to terms that Obama will soon be replaced by President-elect Donald Trump, she said she was not yet ready to let Obama go. “I’m going to take that one day at a time,” she says. “I don’t have my mind there yet.”