Sunday, August 24, 2008

What's the matter with Hyde Park?*

Obama has been taking flak for his neighborhood, and seeing as how I actually know a bit about that subject, I thought I'd muddle through.

The linchpin*1 piece seems to be Mr. Obama's Neighborhood by Andrew Ferguson of the Weekly Standard, so I'll use quotes from that as my skeleton.

Hyde Park, Chicago

Note the explicit claim that the author has actually been to Hyde Park.
When Barack Obama was briefly embarrassed earlier this year by his association with the onetime bomb-builder and wannabe bomb-exploder William Ayers, he blamed his neighborhood, sort of. "He's a guy who lives in my neighborhood," Obama said with a shrug... Obama's casual dismissal led people all across America, people who live in all kinds of communities without bombers, to look at each other and say: "Wow, what kind of neighborhood does Barack live in?"
Confession: I don't know a blessed thing about the Weathermen, or Weathermolls or whether their activities demand the withering condemnation recently applied. It occurs to 'all kinds of communities' have ex-cons in them. Furthermore if Chicago or Illinois or the Federal Government felt that Bill Ayers hadn't paid his debt to society they could have prosecuted him more vigorously or sentenced him more harshly. As it is, we should welcome ex-cons that have returned to the straight and narrow - no?*8
It's not a trifling question. Like a gabby relative or a crooked business associate, a membership in a restrictive golf club or a long-forgotten bisexual fling, a neighborhood can be a problem for a candidate. Voters often feel that incidentals like these reveal something essential about a potential president.
Because when I pick a place to live that's close to my job, that says deep things about who I am. By the way, that thing in college, where I "experimented," that was a long time ago. In my youth. I'm a new man. And I didn't realize it was white's only.
Just as important, political consultants often go to great lengths to make voters feel that way.
This is one of those trifling little incidentals that tell you you're not reading an honest piece about the HP, you've reading a strategy paper for Republican operatives.
Recall poor Michael Dukakis, the hapless Democratic presidential nominee in 1988.
Yes my little Roveies, it worked so well that time, we should try it again!
He lived in the Boston suburb of Brookline--a "progressive" village where the townsfolk congratulate themselves for riding mass transit, eating fibrous bread, holding Winter Festivals in place of Christmas parties, joining committees, attending meetings that last many hours and result in the appointment of more committees, growing organic Chinese vegetables in sideyards, and hanging potted plants in macramé hammocks on the front porch.
This sentence (yes it's only one) is a Mortgage Backed Security of policies and lifestyles. There's grade AAAA conservative canards, like you can't trust anyone that eats whole wheat toast (Real Americans get heart attacks!). Mixed in is the BBB stuff - mass transit. Fast, safe mass transit that goes where people want to is nothing to sneeze at. It'll keep home prices in HP from going the way of Prince William County, and while I can't stand the people that turn up their noses and say 'oh, I don't drive' any more than you can, with gas prices stuck in the $3.50-4.00 range, mass transit is looking for an upgrade. Finally, the Junk Bonds like committees which, rather than being a liberal prerogative, are the spinach and lima beans of any organization - church, corporation, or condo association. Did you know they have taxes in Brookline? Did you know there are lines at the grocery store?
Brookline was an eddy of American life, a pocket of preciosity set apart from the world that most Americans struggle through, and Republican operatives made it a symbol of Dukakis's disconnection from the common man. Maybe this was a low blow (you listening Rovies? -p.e.), but the Republicans had a point. Anyone who knew Brookline would not have been surprised to learn that Dukakis, as one of its favorite sons, liked to take books about Swedish land-use planning with him to the beach, thus disqualifying himself from the presidency.
Did you know that Penicillin was discovered in Scotland, and that other key antibiotics were discovered in Germany? Hope you've never had strep throat, or Andy Ferguson doesn't think you can be president.
As Republicans felt about Brookline, so Obama supporters feel about Obama's neighborhood: It's a measure of the man.
I had to read that a couple of times. Obviously Republicans felt that Brookline was a club to beat Dukakis about the head with and feel the same way about the HP and BHO. So, no, I don't think supporters agree. I would say that Democrats should try to beat John McCain about the head with his adopted neighborhood, but we'd have trouble figuring out which of the 7 McCain-Hensley houses to use as a starting point (did you see that coming? Of course you did).
"What better way to define what you're all about than where you choose to live and bring up your family?" said Obama's friend, neighbor, and campaign adviser John Rogers in USA Today. Obama's neighborhood, Hyde Park, is on the South Side of Chicago, about seven miles from the Loop.
I hope you know more about Chicago's physical and social geography than I did when I accepted here, or that statement won't do you much good. Chicago sits along Lake Michigan, which forms the eastern border of the city, and spreads west. The loop is centered on the North-South axis and sits at the waterfront. It's (approximately) where the Sears Tower, Hancock Building, Millenium and Grant Parks, Trump Tower, Twizzler etc. etc. are. It's also the center of the mass transit system, the El. North of there is Wrigly Field, Lincoln Park, Northwestern Medical center, and great piles of yuppies.

The loop runs to 600 S. (3/4 mi south of the Chicago River). Tourist maps cut the city off at 1200 S. (1.5 mi). Hyde Park is 5.5 mi south of that at 5100-5900 S. It is surrounded on three sides by ghetto (and on one by water). High crime, high poverty - the kind of place where if you get off the train and try to walk around, the best outcome is that someone will quickly suggest you get back on the train. Massive meddling by the university and the second largest police force in Illinois make Hyde Park relatively safe. This is no leafy green college town. Reality is not an abstraction. And it would like your money. And your iPod.
Not counting time spent in college and law school, plus part of a year working for a consulting firm in Manhattan, Hyde Park is the only place Barack Obama has lived as an adult.
I hope this will be the last of those attempts to describe Barack Obama as rootless.
He first moved there in 1984, when he came to Chicago as a community organizer, and he returned after graduating from Harvard Law School. Here he courted his future wife, who grew up in the nearby neighborhood of South Shore, and here his children were born and now attend (private) school. Here, too, is the mansion he bought in 2005, with the proceeds from his two bestselling books in which he speaks fondly of the life he has built here.
Congratulations on finishing page one! Watch Barack Obama marry! Watch Barack Obama buy a house!*2 Watch Barack Obama procreate! There's really nothing here to critique, except the old "you would expect a conservative to be happy about someone privatizing their child's education" / "it's just a commentary on our failure to better educate the least of us."
The affection is mutual. The Hyde Park Herald printed a gala issue when Obama announced his candidacy, in February 2007. "Despite national fame, Barack Obama remains a Hyde Parker to the core," read the banner headline. Inside were display ads from local businesses, full of good wishes and exclamation points: "Good luck, neighbor!"; "Wish Hyde Park's very own Barack Obama and family all the best!"; "Congratulations to Barack, our hometown hero!" There were pages of testimonials from neighbors, shopkeepers, political activists, and his barber, too. All agreed he's "down to earth." One local mother recalled standing next to him at a Halloween parade. "He greeted me with a friendly 'hello,' " she testified. A waitress at his favorite restaurant: "No matter what might be on his mind, he always asks how I'm doing." "He was always one of my quietest customers," said the owner of the local video store. "But when he did have something to say it was always soothing and stimulating at the same time. When he walked away he would leave that thought in your mind. It made you wonder." America has been having the same reaction, but Hyde Parkers experienced it first.
OMG we like having a national celebrity. It sounds like Fergie wishes we would trash him, but that's just typical Rovie stuff - find the guy at the Med Bakery that Barack told off that one time.
If you think this sounds improbably quaint and Norman Rockwellish, like Anytown, USA, Hyde Parkers think so too. They often refer to their neighborhood as a "small town."
Not that I'm a 'Comprehension Stickler,'*3 but if Hyde Parkers think saying Hyde Park is quaint is improbably quaint, they're unlikely to refer to it as a small town, the USMLE Buzz Word for "quaint."
Hyde Park isn't a town (it used to be before being incorporated into Chicago in the late 1800's -p.e.) but, with a population of roughly 35,000, depending on who's counting and how, it is pretty small: 15 city blocks from north to south, another 15 or so from Washington Park on the west to its eastern boundary at the shore of Lake Michigan.
wrongo. Hyde Park proper is 8 blocks N->S, 51st St to 59th St. and 8 blocks E->W, Cottage Grove (800 E) to Lake Michicagn (circa 1600 E). Technically, Barack Obama doesn't live in HP, he lives in Kenwood. I can't speak to the population numbers, but if Fergie wants to keep characterizing the HP as small town America, I'm happy to ignore him while he shoots his left foot and angrily claims it's the right.
Its sense of urban intimacy is reinforced by its isolation. It is the most racially integrated neighborhood in the nation's most racially segregated city.
I note that racial integration is not a characteristic of presciosity, but rather of precociousness. We want America to be integrated, as witnessed by the shameless tokenism of the Republican't convention schedule, and the fact that they don't even complain about how shamelessly they tokenize.
On three sides it is closed in by some of the most hellish slums in the country, miles of littered streets, acres of abandoned lots, block after block of shuttered storefronts and empty apartment buildings left over from the 19th century.
While I thought the previous characterization was woefully short, this one again misses the point. The neighborhoods surrounding Hyde Park are economically depressed, racially unintegrated, and not particularly safe, but they are not dead zones. A casual drive from the highway would have revealed many many open storefronts and people going about their lives. Some appartment buildings are shuttered, others are being rehabbed, others are still inhabited. That's why it's not incongruous for a community organizer to live in Hyde Park and work in the larger South Side. HP is not Grinnell, Iowa teleported alongside Lake Michigan. It is the nice part of the area, but it is of the area. I note that Barack Obama's "mansion" is also a "building left over from the 19th century."
These terminate abruptly at the edge of Hyde Park and give way to shade trees and lawns and stately brick mansions and huge, tidied-up apartment houses.
Again with the not knowing the borders of Hyde Park. Kenwood to the north is very nice. Woodlawn has a lot of freshly rehabbed appartment buildings, and the Washington Park neighborhood abruptly terminates at Washington Park, the park.*4 Again with the 'casual drive from I-90/94 would have found trees in Washington Park.' Again, I note that a Hyde Park mansion is a Washington Park shuttered brick house.
Surrounded, Hyde Park is different from any neighborhood in Chicago--different from anywhere in America, for that matter.
Finally, Premise A. Marks off for not underlining it. Marks off for burying it on the second page. Others might not have noticed it, but I trained in the Kaus/Althouse school of argument! A: Hyde Park is not like America. B: Barack Obama is of Hyde Park. Therefore, Barack Obama is not of America. However, my Etherised/Isofluranised style will defeat your Kaus/Althouse style since my argument against Premise A has the advantage of being true. In the trivial snowflake sense, Hyde Park is different from anywhere in America, but is Fergie really saying there's nowhere else in America where a nice neighborhood abuts a not-so-nice neighborhood? Is Fergie saying there are no other communities where everyone is all up in everyone else's business?

Perhaps it's just that I grew up one mile from a massive IBM printer plant, but Hyde Park reminds me of nothing so much as a white collar factory town. Our Applebee's says "Medici" out front, but it's got the same random stuff on the walls and the same waitresses that have been there forever. We park along our streets, rather than in our driveways, but you still see kids whizzing by on their bikes and playing ball in the park. It's 5 miles to the nearest Target, and 7 to the nearest movie theater. The goals of my circle of acquaintances are to have fun, to get married and have kids, to get ahead by working hard and to own their own homes. We have our liberal blowhards, and our conservative blowhards.
Some people call it a college town (REMEMBER THIS BIT), since its largest inhabitant, the institution that defines the neighborhood's character, is the University of Chicago, one of the world's most prestigious universities.
Coincidentally, some of our blowhards actually know what they're talking about (others are the tin-foil hat email forwarders... just like anywhere else, I suppose)
A friend once described Hyde Park as "Berkeley with snow,"
And the bag of Ramen in my cabinet once described Fergie as "A douchebag, except larger."*5
and it does indeed have the same graduate-student flavor,
What is a graduate student flavor? Chicken? Tears and hard work? How many years of eating it does it take to taste like Cobb lentil soup? Seriously. The grad students I know are alarmingly hard working 20 somethings on the lowest rung of an extremely important profession.
the same political activism and boho intellectualism, the same alarmingly high number of men wandering about looking like NPR announcers--the wispy beards and wire rims, the pressed jeans and unscuffed sneakers, the backpacks and the bikes.
Hey, another Collateralized Debt Obligation! Except it's almost pure junk. Every political activist I've seen was an undergrad, and there were very few - no demonstrations, no marches, no sit ins, no flower children, no bombings (doubtless to Fergie's disappointment). Again, Boho intellectualism, by which I guess he means the sort of big think fostered in undergraduates by classical college education seems to be largely an undergraduate pasttime. Sadly, I don't know what an NPR announcer looks like, but on my typical walks on the quad, I see distressingly few wispy beards, wire rims, pressed jeans or unscuffed sneakers. The backpacks and bikes are the BBB bonds of this example. I must confess, I see a lot of college students CARRYING THINGS ON THEIR BACKS. And travelling TO AND FRO USING NEITHER THEIR FEET NOR THEIR CARS. Quelle f'ing horror my friends.

(This is a pretty good description of William Ayers, by the way.)

Wow, he sounds just like Ted Kaczynski. Let's rend him, extraordinarily. Good job tying the article together, though. Fergie makes no mention of the women though... presumably they're not afflicted by "NPR announce disease," or at least if they are, they look more like Michele Norris than Carl Kasell Come to think about it... Carl Kasell: wispy beard - uncheck; wire-rim glasses - uncheck; pressed jeans - presumably uncheck; unscuffed sneakers - presumably uncheck; backpack - uncheck; bicycle - uncheck. Perhaps it's because I spend a lot of time in the hospital (like many many other Hyde Parkers, but apparently unlike our correspondent), but I see an 'alarmingly high number' of people that look like Carl Kasell.
But the similarities can be overdone. "Not 'Berkeley with snow,'  " a U. of C. professor said, when I mentioned my friend's comment to him. "It's the snow that keeps us from being Berkeley. The snow and the cold keep the street people away. (actually, it doesn't - I suppose that is one way HP differs from the 'burbs -p.e.) It drives everyone inside. (unlike the parts of America that don't get cold, or where it gets cold but people don't go inside? -p.e.)You don't have all the students who dropped out of school or graduated and refused to leave. If they stay, they do something. If not, they get out of town. It's too cold just to hang around."
I actually have several alternative theories for why 'they' don't just hang around - they've just graduated and they're ready to start their lives; they have big piles of debt to pay off; they don't have ultra-rich parents to support a few extra years of partying; they want to see other parts of the country; their friends are leaving... One wonders what department this professor is in.
This contributes to the neighborhood's relatively low crime rate
HAHAHAHAHAHAHA compared to what? Seriously, relative compared to what. If he means "relative compared to your average (read: suburban, white, upper middle class - more on that later) neighborhood," I think the value of my condo just shot up 25%. If he means relative to the surrounding areas, he's just dead wrong. Maybe it's dropouts and post-grad losers that do the crime at Berkely, but in the HP it's bad actors from the neighboring neighborhoods, and the 'relatively low crime rate' is due entirely to the UofC police department (God bless 'em). If you needed evidence the dateline is just a line, look no further.
and, in part, to the university's reputation as a home for squares and nerds,
So the wispy bearded NPR announcers are actually squares and nerds?
a buttoned-down "bastion of conservatism," in the phrase of one magazine writer. And the conservatism, by popular account, infects the neighborhood at large, tempers its politics, and adds to its diversity. But the reputation for right-wingery is based on a simple if imprecise bit of data that shocks the delicate sensibilities of college professors: Of the tens of thousands of faculty who have taught at the University of Chicago over the past half-century, perhaps as many as 65 have, at some point in their lives, voted for a Republican.
Data? Seriously. There are more than 65 business professors right now, and don't tell me the lawschool is all Stevens and no Scalia. As for the med school, one of my professors (yes that's an ironic use of authority) said of a group of med students "there go a gaggle of democrats on their way to being republicans." Fergie may be surprised to find that the hospital contains more than a few doctors.

On a deeper level, there's a shift going on - throughout the piece you've been getting impressions and reputation, with little hard data. Now, we're shown a piece of reputation and told not to believe it. Again, the audience for this piece is the Rovies, we just happened to Google it.
Many of these insurgents were either disciples of the university's most famous faculty member, the free-market economist Milton Friedman, or were drawn to the school because of him; others came under the influence of Allan Bloom, the Straussian philosopher, who ran the university's Olin Center for Inquiry into the Theory and Practice of Democracy, along with a few classically minded scholars. Bloom is dead. So is Friedman. The Olin Center closed its doors in 2005. Their disciples and colleagues who remain at the university aren't getting any younger. It's unlikely that the school's wobbly reputation for conservatism, and the neighborhood's, will survive them.
The "classically minded scholars" are still in the driver's seat for the undergrad curriculum if my sources are to be believed. Friendman is dead, but the Milton Friedman Institute lives. Strauss's Committee on Social Thought continues as well. The free market centric reality of the business school and economics departments can be seen in the excitement for Obama among fans of Prof. Austen Goolsbee. The nature of the Academy (boo hiss!) guarantees Friedman's disciples will have disciples.

Pause for a second to wonder why it matters if there are 65 or 600 conservatives on the UofC faculty. If the question is - does Barack Obama come from a very liberal neighborhood, the answer doesn't depend on Milton Friedman's continued life. If the question is - were Barack Obama's ideas challenged on a daily basis by people he disagreed with, then you cast aspersions on the authenticity of every Republican that doesn't live in a college town.

As a matter of fact, I do belive it was good for Barack Obama to have his ideas questioned from right and left, from black and white, and latino and asian, from Catholic and Jewish and Muslim - oh darn I started channeling again. And I think it hurts Republican politicians when they don't have a chance to have their posiitons really challenged in a thoughtful way before they make those positions official and are forced to defend them no matter how ridiculous the situation becomes.
The reputation for diversity, though, probably will survive (Fergie admits it's true*6 -p.e.). It's not often noted that the neighborhood's diversity has its limits. "In Hyde Park," a resident told me, " 'integration' means white people and black people (those are the people from the surrounding neighborhoods - p.e.)." The nation's fastest growing ethnic group, Hispanics, is scarcely represented at all; same for Asians (HAHA. FAIL. Obviously didn't walk around -p.e.). The neighborhood is better known as a haven for the black upper class, especially those who don't want to move to an all-white suburb but also don't want the crime risks and miserable schools associated with the neighborhoods to the immediate south, west, and north ("Better known as"? weasel words! -p.e.). Some of these people are famous--Harold Washington, Chicago's first black mayor, lived in an apartment by the lake, and Muhammad Ali lived down the block from Louis Farrakhan, who lives in Elijah Muhammad's old digs, around the corner from the house of Joe Louis's widow. Most are lawyers and business executives from the Loop, doctors and technicians from the university hospital center, administrators and professors from the university--united to the white upper class through shared politics and aspirations, and delighting in, congratulating one another on, their unique neighborhood.
O.K. Muhammed Ali, Farrakhan and Louis live in Kenwood. Kenwood. Kenwood. I check Wikipedia before I write my hit pieces, o.k.? Anyway, Fergie says the neighborhood isn't all professors, but then says it doesn't matter because everyone is happy about their little town. And it's well known that enjoying where you live makes you a liberal bastion incapable of producing real leaders. The attempt to say that the black professionals aren't really black seems part of the old line questionign whether Obama was black enough. I have to tell Fergie he's out of date and the new line is questioning whether Obama isn't too black. Too black. Not to mention the negative effects of assuming that education and a salary prevent someone from being authentically black.
Hyde Park has always been relatively affluent, but the neighborhood's character was changed forever beginning in the mid-1950s, when university officials orchestrated an ambitious scheme of urban renewal, paid for by the city and federal governments. The project was the first of its kind in Chicago, and one of the first in the country, and it served for a generation as a model for other cities, for better or worse--usually worse. But in Hyde Park urban renewal worked like a Swiss watch.
Throwaway (thank G-d, my computer's getting tired)

"You have to understand the mindset," a neighborhood preservationist, Jack Spicer, told me. "In the middle of the 1950s, the university thought they were in the middle of an emergency. Alarms were going off everywhere." All around Hyde Park, white flight was transforming Chicago, goosed by racial panic and the sleazy importunities of "blockbusters"--real estate speculators who bought the houses of fleeing whites at fire-sale prices, then flipped them at a high profit to incoming blacks. "The university figured Hyde Park was next," Spicer said. The school was having trouble attracting students and faculty. Administrators considered moving the campus to Arizona or New Mexico--anywhere pleasant--but balked at the expense. At last they decided that if they couldn't move to a nice neighborhood, they would make their neighborhood nice.

The aim of urban renewal in Hyde Park, according to the university's president, was "to buy, control, and rebuild our neighborhood" until it was a "community of similar tastes and interests." The program lasted a decade. By the end of it the neighborhood had been reconfigured physically and redefined socially. Vast stretches of the old Hyde Park were bulldozed, including the main shopping and entertainment (that is, honky-tonk) district along 55th Street. Planners clear-cut an entire subneighborhood of wooden bungalows that housed workers from the nearby slaughterhouses and the Indiana steel mills, scattering the residents to parts unknown. From these razed blocks sprung parking garages, dormitories, classroom buildings, parks, and rows of townhouses suitable for students and faculty.

What survived the wrecking ball was equally desirable: the mansions built during the neighborhood's day as the city's Gold Coast, in the 1890s, when it drew Armours, Swifts, and other monied families looking for a lakeside home. Just to the south, turn-of-the-century apartment houses were saved, refurbished, and offered as housing for the administrators and faculty at U. of C. Having uprooted most neighborhood businesses, the plan concentrated all commercial activity into three small shopping centers, from which most of the old shop owners were excluded. A single saloon survived. Notably absent from the scheme was any public housing for the poor. After ten years of urban renewal, the neighborhood's population had dropped by 40 percent.

More throwaway (i.e. irrelevant to stuff after 1960). The one thing I would say is that many urban medical centers - Yale, Cleveland Clinic, Pitt, are like spaceships. People drive in, move form building to building on elevated walkways, and their feet never touch the ground. One can fault the university for a lot in its management of Hyde Park, but the result is something everyone can hold hands and sing kumbaya about.

Hyde Park's isolation was by design. At its boundaries, the university bought and leveled city blocks that could serve as a buffer, or moat, from the surrounding South Side as it filled with impoverished blacks.
I would love to know what he thinks they blew up. Not the Midway, it was there for the Columbian Exposition in 1893. Not Washington Park, as it was also part of the Columbian Exposition. And Not Hyde Park Boulevard, since it didn't get blown up, or if it did, it's not a moat since they built stuff on it.

The isolation brings a whiff of unreality to the neighborhood. The place seems unrooted. It's neither one thing nor the other. Hyde Park lacks the freewheeling energy of a college town (Oh, really? See above, and below -p.e.), and it lacks the surprises and variety of a healthy city neighborhood (as opposed to the authentically 'bombed out' surrounding ones? or the lily white ones up north? -p.e.). Strolling the quiet streets on a morning in May you'll admire the lilacs spilling over the low stone fences, the mansions with the squares of lawn marching to the edge of the boulevards, the funky, vine-covered apartment buildings shaded by overarching oak and poplar. Only after a day or so do you notice what's not here. There are no movie theaters, for example, and not much commerce generally. There's nowhere to buy a pair of pants or shoes. There aren't many restaurants, and only a single overpriced restaurant catering to the culinary affectations of the yuppie trade--strange for a neighborhood with so many wealthy residents. Only in the last few months did the neighborhood get a reliable, clean, and well-stocked grocery store.

I note that my subdivision in Colorado didn't have any commerce either. It was a mile to the grocery store (same as Hyde Park), Target and theatres we already covered. Hyde Park does have two liquor stores, six bars, four bookstores, a hardware store, two banks, two drug stores, a Fedex/Kinkos, and very many non-yuppie restaraunts. People seem to grossly overestimate an average professors salary, which is perhaps where the idea that profs are elitist comes from. The Banana was appalled when I informed her that somehow 'elitist' had shifted from 'plutocrat' to 'educated person.' Somehow, Fergie thinks that UofC profs fit both definitions... of that professors count as Yuppies. Alas, the Med is much more fitting than La Petit Folie.

And both of these, the fancy restaurant and the new grocery store, are creatures of the university's paternalism. The university has long been aware that the neighborhood it created lacks the amenities that urban dwellers demand as compensation for the discomforts of city living. So when the neighborhood's only large grocery store failed recently--it was a customer-owned cooperative, whose empty shelves and accumulated gunk attested to its Soviet-like disdain for market forces--the university subsidized a new outlet from a "gourmet" grocery chain (This is a complete muck up. There were three slots for grocery stores in the neighborhood and the Co-Op rented all three to preserve its monopoly, going deeply into debt to the univeristy. The university finally killed it. Treasure Island is the replacement at one slot, and it's no Whole Foods. The selection is slightly broader in foreign goods, but otherwise very comparable to a Dominicks-p.e.). Now everybody's happy. The fancy restaurant, too, was encouraged by the university as something its cultured faculty would like, and as a place where parents might take their student children on campus visits; the university keeps the restaurant owners afloat by providing business for their catering service (OMG, large local business encourages development in its neighborhood -p.e.). And, having obliterated the neighborhood's entertainment district 50 years ago, it is now trying to draw bars and clubs back to Hyde Park, either through subsidy or outright purchase. U. of C. recently bought and moved the South Side landmark Checkerboard Lounge close to campus, to restore the nightlife that the 1950s urban planners hoped to kill (and did).

Hyde Parkers sometimes seem strangely unaware of how completely their neighborhood's uniqueness is a product of the university's noblesse oblige (Really? On what basis? I'm painfully aware of where the call boxes are on my way home, and I wave at every police I see -p.e.). An outsider sees it most clearly in the university police cars that patrol Hyde Park around the clock, and in the emergency call boxes spaced throughout the entire neighborhood, far beyond the campus proper, that anyone can use at any time to summon campus cops. (The university police force is the second largest police force in Illinois.) The paternalism is less obvious because it has never been racial. Urban renewal drove out as many poor whites as poor blacks; for university officials in the 1950s, enlightened liberals all, the panic was over a decline in social and economic class. "They wanted a comfortable place for the upper class to live," said Spicer, the preservationist. "They didn't want only black families, or all black families, but black families of the right sort were welcomed." The neighborhood's famous racial harmony is the result. The comedian (and later movie director) Mike Nichols, who got his start in a club on the old 55th Street, defined Hyde Park liberalism for all time: "Black and white, marching arm in arm, shoulder to shoulder against the poor."

Wasn't it the tough-on-crime Nixons and Reagans that told us it's not that they disliked the poor, they were just fighting crime? And if the suggestion is that Barack Obama is against the poor (like that tax increase nonsense) then you're dashed by his community organizing and professing as opposed to selling out for megabucks and poor-screwing (unless you think this is all some secret plot to get powerful enough to screw all the poor at once).

Right out of college, Barack Obama placed himself in the middle of this curious legacy. Culturally he's never been a "South Sider," because no one on the south side thinks of Hyde Park as a South Side neighborhood (despite, you know, all the professionals that live in Hyde Park and work outside - see authentically black above -p.e.). It's an anomaly that the writer and cultural critic Andrew Patner, a native Hyde Parker, tried to explain to me as we drove around the neighborhood one day (apparently while wearing blinders -p.e.).

"There's a certain wariness toward Hyde Park among South Side blacks, most of whom are poor," he said. "If you're from another neighborhood, you might go to Hyde Park on the weekends. But there's a word, sadiddy. It means you think maybe you're better than you are. Pretentious. That's sort of the view of Hyde Park. It's too weird, too far outside what most of Chicago knows."

This had consequences for Obama's political future. Most successful African-American politicians in Chicago come up through the Democratic big-city political machine--either the old machine of Richard J. Daley or the gentler version overseen by his son, the current mayor, Richard M. Daley. Even Harold Washington, now canonized as the greatest of Chicago reformers, was machine-made. By contrast, politicians from Hyde Park, white or black, actively opposed the machine and the headlock it had on the city's politics. "Politically," wrote the Chicago political analyst David Fremon, "Hyde Park has never joined the city." Obama is a politician of Hyde Park pedigree, outside the normal bloodlines of Chicago's black politics.

So Obama is NOT from a corrupt political machine, therefore he's suspect!

"When Barack announced for president," Patner told me, "it was a total ho-hum in the black community"--beyond Hyde Park, that is (I thought Patner was a Hyde Parker and "real" South Siders dont' talk to Hyde Parkers? -p.e.). "It just wasn't that big a deal."

A political rival, State Senator Donne Trotter, put it this way in an interview with the Chicago Reader: "Barack is viewed in part to be the white man in blackface in our community. You just have to look at his supporters. Who pushed him to get where he is so fast? It's these individuals in Hyde Park, who don't always have the best interests of the community in mind."

"That's one of the downsides to his background, coming up outside normal channels," Patner went on. "He's always had to prove himself with the black community. He never had that seal of approval. But there are upsides, too."

One upside is that Obama, the Hyde Parker, was automatically more appealing--less threatening--to white liberals, in Hyde Park and beyond. The other upside, said Patner, is that "because he came up through Hyde Park instead of the machine, he stayed clear of all the corruption that's involved with that."

So one of Barack's rivals trashes him and points out he had low black support outside his immediate community when he started running. A perusal of the south side now would show a very different perspective. Still I'll rehearse the classical explanation of why he wasn't supported in the begining - the widespread perception that Hillary had it locked up, so why throw your vote away? Once Obama showed his viability in Iowa (darn those white liberals anyway!) black enthusiasm exploded.

By Chicago standards, Obama's sweetheart real estate deal with the convicted fixer (real estate developer -p.e.) Tony Rezko--who purchasd the lot next to the house Obama was buying, effectively giving him a bigger yard for free (with the stated purpose of developing it -p.e.)--is almost beneath comment: a cost of doing business or a small professional benefit, typical of machine-backed pols and reformers alike. None of the progressive politicos I spoke with in Hyde Park considered it dismaying--"disappointing," as one oldtimer said, but hardly disqualifying. Most found in Obama instead a mint-perfect expression of their particular brand of politics.

"Barack is perfect for the neighborhood!" Rabbi Arnold Wolf told me, when I stopped by his Hyde Park house one afternoon for a talk. He's as round and white-bearded as Santa, with the same twinkle. He came to Hyde Park before urban renewal and saw its effects firsthand. For 25 years he led the congregation at KAM Isaiah Israel, a synagogue across the street from Obama's mansion. (Recently, the Secret Service contingent has been using its bathrooms.)

"You can't say Barack's a product of Hyde Park. He's not really from here. But everybody saw the potential early on. We had a party for him at our house when he was just starting, back in the Nineties. I said right away: 'Here's a guy who could sell our product, and sell it with splendor!' "

I asked him what the Hyde Park product was.

"People think we're radicals here, wild-eyed!" he said. "Bill Ayers--I know Bill Ayers very well. Bill Ayers is an aging, toothless radical. A pussycat. And his wife, too. I sat on a commission with his wife a few years ago. My god, she was more critical of the left than I was! The two of them, they're utterly conventional people. They had a violent streak at one time. But now--they're thoroughly conventional, just very nice, well-educated people from the neighborhood."

As it happened, I'd spent the evening before reading Ayers's blog, and lingered over a manifesto he posted in early April, after his friendship with Obama became national news. "I've never advocated terrorism," Ayers wrote, "never participated in it, never defended it. The U.S. government, by contrast, does it routinely and defends the use of it in its own cause consistently." Capitalism, he went on, "is exhausted as a force for progress: built on exploitation, theft, conquest, war, and racism, capitalism and imperialism must be defeated and a world revolution--a revolution against war and racism and materialism, a revolution based on human solidarity and love" and so on.

Just another guy in the neighborhood (What did I mention about blowhards? -p.e.).

But back to the product Obama could sell?

"The thing is, it's not what you might think," Rabbi Wolf said. "It's not radical. It's not extreme. It's a rational, progressive philosophy based on experience. You see it here. This neighborhood is genuinely integrated. We did it here, we really did it! Not just talk about it. Look around. And Barack and his family fit right in. This is their neighborhood."

As he walked me to the door he mused about the urban renewal that created the new Hyde Park. He said he'd always been ambivalent about it.

"Even at the time, you could see the university was saving us, and it was destroying us," he said. "It was keeping us afloat, but it was also taking away the old characteristics, the old buildings, the old trees, the old roots. But it made the neighborhood different, unique. You notice there's no class conflict here."

He twinkled.

"That's because there's only one class--upper!"

I been to services from Wolf. He's a good guy. But it's hard to look at this and see anything other than someone not used to giving hostile interviews being used to stab a friend in the back. It's also 'interesting' to see suburbanites go after Hyde Park for being island-ish, unintegrated, mono-cultural and single-classed.

The irony would be funny if it weren't so jarring: Black America, after 400 years of enforced second-class status, offers the country a plausible presidential candidate, and what's the charge made against him? He's an elitist. (Write that down Rovies: Doesn't matter how much he makes, or whether he cares about Americans, he's an elitist - p.e.)

Hyde Park may be partly responsible. Obama does show signs of having imbibed its view of the America beyond the moat. David Mendell, in his indispensable biography Obama: From Promise to Power, quotes a co-worker of Obama: "[Obama] always talked about the New Rochelle train, the trains that took commuters to and from New York City, and he didn't want to be on one of those trains every day. The image of a life, not a dynamic life, of going through the motions. .  .  . That was scary to him." In his own memoir, Obama depicts his mother fleeing the "smugness and hypocrisy" of her small Midwestern town--a town that Obama visited for the first time this year, campaigning. Only a lack of familiarity with the benign flow of middle-class American life could inspire clichés like these.

Smugness - check. Hypocrisy - check. Shall we dump on Leo Bloom because he doesn't want to be an accountant all his life? Shall I roll through the Ferguson oevre looking for derisive references to Des Moines?*7 Obama is getting the Democratic nomination for president. Win or lose, he will be a major figure in the United States for decades to come. By attacking his broad vision and talent for inspiration, his detractors admit he has a broad vision and a talent for inspiration. Barack Obama will be a major figure in the United States for decades. If you don't like his politics, it's no wonder you wish he would have gone to New Rochelle, but if I ever get to bed tonight I might have that same nightmare - Barack Obama trapped in the daily grind, reduced to a clock-watching, solitare playing grey flannel suit man.

"I never had roots growing up," Obama has often said. It's the theme of his life, as he himself tells the story. He even wrote a book, a small masterpiece, about his tortured attempts to locate himself in the larger world. From Hawaii to Indonesia and back to Hawaii, then to Los Angeles and Manhattan and Cambridge, Mass., and finally to Hyde Park: He's never lived in a part of the country that's like 90 percent of the rest of the country.
This looks like the key line of the piece, yet it actually means dog-all. Is there an archetype that describes 90% of the country? I don't think so. Do Barack's experiences in Hawaii, Los Angeles, Manhattan, Cambridge and Hyde Park only cover 10% of the 'likeness' of the country? In that case, we've so finely sliced it that to have covered 10% is a pretty good achievement. It's not geographical diversity, as he's lived on both coasts, the midwest and outside the continental 48. It's not that he's only lived in urban areas as the U.S. is much more than 10% urban. This is the line of attack - he's not like us - he's weird and elite and comes from a crazy neighborhood! But there's nothing to it, the 10% looks like a throwaway... Except, there's one small sliver. No, couldn't be that... Maybe it's a dog whistle? There is that one statistic that's about 10%, but...

This struck me one afternoon when I drove from Obama's house to Trinity United Church of Christ, the now-controversial church where he worshipped for nearly 20 years. It's a long drive, 30 minutes or more (Don't say that, he can't really be faithful, it's just convenience, get on message! -p.e.). Whether you take the freeway or the surface streets, the route jolts you from the manicured quiet of Hyde Park through one bombed-out neighborhood after another (not bombed out, people going about their lives, getting by -p.e.). Then you arrive at Trinity, hard against the roaring freeway, at the edge of a district of blond-brick bungalows, some tidy and trim, others obscured by weeds, the shutters off their hinges. After services, Obama would get the family in the car and go home (as opposed to staring off into space walking in circles for half an hour like all the authentic blacks -p.e.).

Hyde Park's the neighborhood he returned to, the place he'd chosen to live, and its roots were torn out 50 years ago (and what have we got now, astroturf?-p.e.). A college town, it has all the churning and transience the phrase implies (oh really? see above, and farther above -p.e.). Everyone seems from somewhere else. The Armours, Swifts, and the other first families of Chicago left long ago. The working men and their families, who replaced them, were driven out by the university. The poor were secured at a safe distance. Inside, harmony reigned between white and black residents, but the whites drawn by the university were often here only temporarily (except for the lifers -p.e.), and the blacks who moved here have the same sense of displacement, even if they arrived from another neighborhood nearby (evidence?-p.e.).

This is the perfect place for a man without an identity to make one of his own choosing.

I'm glad we agree on the need for Presidential Candidates to be Self-Made Men

Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.
You shouldda seen the crap the junior editor turned in. Recitation tomorrow.

P.S. There was a phenomenon in Colorado, probably much less common now, where you'd go down a road you hadn't been down in a month and there would be a new development up, like it had been ka-chunk'd into place by some giant development-making machine. The important thing about a place like that, with its paper-thin walls and white carpet and no grocery store and no La Petit Folie, is that when a family moves into there, it becomes a home. And their lives put meaning and roots and decency into those walls. A guy like Barack Obama settles down, gets a condo and puts down roots, that's meaningful. You can't deny that he chose the neighborhood and it shaped him. Maybe if we're lucky, he'll shape it as well.


Coincidentally, Barack Obama will work a hell of a lot harder to keep that family in their new home than John McCain will.

*: Others have addressed this question. 1. 2.

1: By which I mean Checka (they did love their guilt by association)

2: Side note on the house: It's nicely appointed, about the size of my parents four-bedroom suburban home. The (one) million dollar price tag comes from being detached - no neighbors, no condo assn.

3: Not that I find "grammar Nazi" offensive per se, just that I don't think Adolf would let you off with an angrily sharpied "that's not where the apostraphie goes, jude."

4: Which reminds me of the UofC economics study of prostitution in Chicago which is of a part with the considerable field work also reported in Freakonomics and Gang Leader for a Day. Ivory Tower it ain't (neither is the UofC emergency room, for that matter).

5: Goodbye credibility. Too bad it was so unresistable. Hey Nature, can I cite my friends? No?

6: Rovie definition of true: Incapable of reversing this perception prior to the election.

7: On the other hand, its goo-goo tradition is partly what makes Iowa atypical, hence almost worthless as a national temperature-taker. It is the fourth whitest state in the union -- fewer than 5 percent of its population is black, Hispanic, or Asian. Voter participation is much higher than the national average. Those who do vote are on average whiter, richer, older, and better educated than voters elsewhere, and those who participate in the caucuses are even more so. The large number of farmers guarantee that issues of absolutely no importance to the rest of the country -- ethanol subsidies, for instance -- preoccupy the candidates. The large oldster contingent has the same effect: As the journalist Walter Shapiro points out, the issue-fad of "notch babies," which gripped several presidential contenders in the 1980s, was purely a pander to Iowa's hefty cohort of senior citizens. - Andrew Ferguson, The Weekly Standard Aug. 16, 1999. IOWA GOTHIC; The Thrill of Being Ground Zero of Campaign 2000, p21. Well, I guess nowhere is 'like America' - darn that diversity! Also, gotcha. Also, I love Lexis-Nexis, go UofC! Also, how can I get into the gig of doing hit pieces on places?

8: EDIT: Duplicate quoted paragraph removed here.

3 comments:

Andrew Patner said...

Dear P.E.,

I did not write the (*June 16*) Weekly Standard article that has you in such a dither.

But I have no idea where your comments about my comments in the article are coming from. I am an Obama supporter and have been since long before this article appeared.

If you have any interest in reading my own views on Obama and the South Side -- they are here:

http://viewfromhere.typepad.com/the_view_from_here/2008/06/mr-obamas-neighborhood.html

and here:

http://viewfromhere.typepad.com/the_view_from_here/2008/03/obama-and-rev-w.html

with a postscript on Jeremiah Wright here:

http://viewfromhere.typepad.com/the_view_from_here/2008/05/jeremiah-wright.html

Andrew Patner
98.7WFMT Radio Chicago and wfmt.com
Chicago Sun-Times
viewfromhere.typepad.com

p.e. said...

Dear Andrew,
I know you didn't write it. I quoted you being quoted in it... I'm sorry for that confusion, and I wish I would have read your response before boiling over on my own.

Andrew Patner said...

Thanks, p.e.!

aP