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Obama’s journey from Hyde to Grant Park

Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2008-11-04

Chicago’s Grant Park is getting set for Barack Obama’s address Nov. 4 night. It’s barely six miles, but a world away from Hyde Park, the neighborhood Obama has lived in since he made the Windy City his home.


Read our reporters' notebooks from Chicago and Phoenix


Click here to read special correspondent Leela Jacinto's article 'Obama's not-so-sweet home, Chicago.'



At Grant Park, Chicago’s rolling lakeside gardens where Barack Obama is scheduled to end his historic 2008 presidential campaign, final furious preparations are underway for the grand show Tuesday night.


Hours before polls officially open for the Nov. 4 elections, the sound of welding rents the air as workers scuttle between snowy white tents, putting final touches in a sealed off, high security zone.


Chicago city authorities are getting set to host tens of thousands of spectators at Grant Park’s Lower Hutchinson Field, where an enormous stage is being set up. All Chicago police officers have had their days off canceled Tuesday and off-duty firefighters are expected to take their helmets and kits with them until after the election in case of emergencies.


On the sidewalk outside Lower Hutchinson Field, a babel of languages can be heard as TV anchors from across the world record their stand-ups in Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Finnish, French and Dutch – to mention just a few.


Barely six miles south of Downtown’s Grant Park, in the heart of Chicago’s hard-bitten South Side, lies Hyde Park, a diverse, racially-integrated neighborhood that the Democratic presidential candidate has called home for almost two decades.


Things are very different here. On 53rd Street, the hub of the neighborhood, longtime residents balancing lunch trays shuffle between tables at the Valois Cafeteria. The clientele here is predominantly black, the menu features greasy heartland fare and the talk among the older set is still vintage black consciousness-raising, circa 1960s.


Hyde Park first shot into national prominence during the peak of the nasty period of the 2008 campaign, when Obama was accused of “palling around” with “terrorists” such as Bill Ayers.


The Illinois senator’s initial reaction was dismissive. Ayers - the former ‘60s radical-turned-university professor - Obama shrugged, was just a “guy who lives in my neighborhood.”


‘What kind of neighborhood does Barack live in?’


The remark led the right-wing US magazine, “The Weekly Standard” to wonder, “Wow, what kind of neighborhood does Barack live in?”


It’s not an easy question to answer. Even longtime Chicagoans, known for their clear-headed, down-to-earth Midwestern personalities, take a while addressing that one. And their replies can sound unusually contradictory.


Hyde Park has been home to some of nation’s leading intellectuals. It has also housed some of history’s best-known African-American figures. Past and present residents include boxer Muhammad Ali, Nation of Islam chiefs Louis Farrakhan and Elijah Muhammad, writer Saul Bellow, porn media moghul Hugh Heffner and philosopher Francis Fukuyama – to name just a few.


The easiest way to characterize the neighborhood would be to adopt the discourse of those most suspicious of the neighborhood. Conservatives typically call Hyde Park “a liberal bastion” peopled with folks with “wispy beards and wire glasses.”


A conservative bastion among liberals


But Hyde Park is also home to the University of Chicago, where Obama taught law for 12 years at the University of Chicago Law School.


A leading US university, famed for its conservatism in academic circles, the University of Chicago is best known in recent times as the base of the late Leo Strauss, a former political science professor widely regarded as one of the leading fathers of neo-conservatism in the United States. The university was also home to the Chicago School of Economics, the temple of free market economics over regulation and governmental controls.


The contradictions of Hyde Park are mirrored in its demographics. Although it’s situated in the heart of the predominantly black South Side, Hyde Park itself is one of the city’s most racially diverse neighborhoods, with whites making up about 43% of the population, while blacks constitute about 38%.


The Kenwood area of Hyde Park, where the Obamas live, is a lot more upscale. Most of its enormous houses resemble those in the Chicago’s chichi North Shore area.


“In many ways, Hyde Park is the embodiment of Obama, of just who he is - progressive, but not radical left-wing,” says John Wilson, a former student of Obama at the University of Chicago Law School and author of the book, Barack Obama: This Improbable Quest. “It’s integrated, liberal, elitist – especially to residents of neighborhoods that surround it.”


‘It’s about time’


It’s considered so elite, that the only political race Obama lost, back during the 2000 Democratic primaries for the House of Representatives, was to another Hyde Park resident, Bobby Rush, a former Black Panther.


In the early stages of his political career, Obama was not exactly embraced by the more radical black schools that have dominated African-American discourse since the Civil Rights movement.


But that, says Wilson, is all in the past. “I think in some ways the black community views things differently when they’re evaluating a politician for themselves. They have a different set of standards when Obama is running against a white politician,” says Wilson. “There is overwhelming support for Obama among African-Americans. We’ve seen massive early voting in the African-American areas.”


Back in downtown Chicago, Keysha Williams, a 31-year-old black, unemployed, stay-at-home mom, is watching all the preparations for Tuesday’s rally at Grant Park from the nearby train station.


When asked about her feelings on the eve of a vote that could see the election of the country’s first black president, Williams chokes back her tears. “Oh boy, we’ve waited,” she says, wiping her eyes with her sleeve. “We’ve waited long enough. Let’s hope he’ll make it, ‘coz it’s about time. It’s time for a change.”

Date created : 2008-11-03