A look at Obama's home turf in Chicago

Hyde Park hardly mainstream USA

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post / October 19, 2008
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CHICAGO - No American president has been elected from a place quite like Hyde Park, the home of Senator Barack Obama. Among the community's notable features are a university famous for intellectualism, a pair of 1960s Weather Underground radicals famous for being unrepentant, and a bloc of voters famous for choosing Senator John Kerry over President Bush by 19 to 1.

Judging by the swift demonization, Obama might as well live at the corner of Liberal and Kumbaya. Republican strategist Karl Rove placed Hyde Park alongside Cambridge and San Francisco in a triad of leftist tomfoolery. The Weekly Standard, recalling Obama's description of former Weatherman Bill Ayers as merely "a guy who lives in my neighborhood," asked who lives in a neighborhood like that.

Hyde Park in real life is not so easily typecast. The political ethic is proudly progressive on matters of race and social justice, yet the community is anchored by the University of Chicago, an incubator for some of the nation's most influential conservatives.

Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan lives within four blocks of Obama's $1.6 million home, as do former Weather Underground members Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn. Yet so does Richard Epstein, a prominent libertarian law professor who is quick to say he is friends with Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and Ayers - and once tried to hire Dohrn.

"I don't consider myself a Chicagoan," Epstein explains. "I consider myself a Hyde Parker."

To be a Hyde Parker, dozens of residents say, is to choose to live in a community that considers variations of race, creed, wealth, and politics to be a neighborhood selling point. For Hyde Park's most famous resident, his chosen turf represents the political eclecticism and sense of post-racial possibility at the heart of his personality and campaign. Yet, as Obama is learning, the narrative cuts both ways. Senator John McCain and his supporters have pushed the idea, echoed by early surveys, that Obama is a risky choice, that he is somehow just too exotic, too erudite - and did we mention naive?

Mainstream, as mainstream is commonly defined, is not Hyde Park. The average white metropolitan resident lives in a neighborhood 80 percent white and only 7 percent black, says Northwestern University professor Mary Pattillo. Census tracts in the exurbs and the countryside tend to be even whiter.

By contrast, the 2000 census found this breakdown among the 29,000 residents in Hyde Park proper: 43.5 percent white, 37.7 percent black, 11.3 percent Asian, 4.1 percent Hispanic, and 3.4 percent "other." There are plenty of six-figure earners, yet 1 in 6 residents lives in poverty. The median household income is about $45,000, about the national average.

"Given all this," Pattillo says, "you can better understand the foreignness of a place like Hyde Park."

In the 1940s, fear among some whites of the increasing migration of black families produced a bitter fight over race. The University of Chicago, saying it was trying to maintain safe surroundings, backed restrictive covenants as well as white neighborhood groups intent on barring blacks.

The strategy worked as the university had hoped, says Timuel Black, 89, a longtime political activist.

Sufficient numbers of middle-class whites and blacks stayed to preserve the community's multiracial core.

"When whites found out that blacks were just like them," Black says, "acceptance was very easy."

As it happens, Obama is trying to lead white voters to that same conclusion.

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