July 25 - August 7, 2008
A Walk in Mr. Obama’s Windy City Neighborhood
It was the ninth inning, bases were loaded and the batter had three balls and two strikes when a fielder's choice groundout drove in the winning run. The Gary (Indiana) South Shore Railcats had defeated the Winnipeg (Canada) Goldeyes 2-1 on its home turf. After rooting for the home team, I drove around Lake Michigan’s windy southern shores over to neighboring Illinois to explore Barack Obama’s home turf, Chicago’s Kenwood-Hyde Park neighborhood. As I approached the Indiana/Illinois border, I imagined how the “Welcome to Illinois - The Land of Lincoln” sign would look with the additional line: “Home of President Barack Obama.”
There is nothing in Kenwood-Hyde Park to announce that South Greenwood street may become the Midwestern White House, except for the three unmarked black Secret Service vans parked in fr ont of the Obama’s corner lot home. Ironically, the street’s honorary name is Jewel Stradford LaFontane Way, in honor of the first Black woman to become the Deputy Solicitor General of the United States in 1973. The neighborhood was also the home of the late Harold Washington, the Windy City's first Black mayor and is the home of the first Black Democrat and only Black female ever to hold a U.S. Senate seat, Carolyn Mosely-Braun.
The historic K.A.M. Isaiah Israel temple that is across the street from the Obama home at 5050 Sout h Greenwood is one of the first symbols of their neighborhood’s diversity. Around the corner from their home is the more modest Ellis Avenue Church which “Celebrates Diversity, Building Community in Christ” and about three b locks away at 47th Street is the magnificently built Masjid Al-Faatir mosque. And for those wondering if this pristine neighborhood is not black enough or too elitists, Harold’s Fish, Pizza and Chicken Shack, Chicagoland’s perennial Black neighborhood carry-out fast food chain, has a store three blocks away at 53rd Street.
A walk around their block reveals a slice of the real typical Americana. While standing on the side of their home at the bus stop to catch either the Number 2 Hyde Park Express or the Number 15 Jeffrey Local you can peer through the Obama’s towering evergreens and see a basketball hoop. Much has been said about their $1.3 million mansion, but not the more affordable $190,000 one bedroom condominiums or the $865 per month, 1,000 square-foot three-bedroom apartments available in their block.
Kenwood-Hyde Park is the on l y place Barack Obama has lived as an adult. 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, Michelle, who grew up in the nearby community of South Shore. According to the Chicago Sun-Times the Obama’s shared their first kiss outside the recently closed Baskin Robbins at 53rd and Dorchester, across the street from Ribs and Bibs take-out restaurant.
While Hyde Park-Kenwood is a multiracial community, descendants of Blacks who fled the southern parts of the United States during the Great Black Migration dominate the Chicagoland South Shore neighborhoods including Michelle’s home turf. “Chicagoland is one of the most segregated areas in the country. However, Hyde Park has a history of being an island of tolerance and inclusion,” says Norman West, who grew up in Chicago and now lives in Washington.
Obama is reportedly a frequent patron of Medici, a very popular locally-owned environmentally frie ndly, socially responsible pizza and burger joint on 57th Street that is decorated with authentic graffiti on everything, but the floor. In the same block, the Obamas have shopped for years at 57th Street Books, an independent bookseller housed in the basement of a three-story apartment building. "The variety of titles, the programs for kids and the neighborhood feel make it a wonderful place to take a walk to and browse around," Michelle Obama told the Chicago Sun-Times.
As I explored Mr. Obama’s neighborhood, I wondered when was the last time we had a president who claimed an urban neighborhood as his home and could claim to have befriended a homeless person. “He has bought papers from me,” says Claude Foules, who sells Streetwise on 57th Street. “I think he is a down to earth person,” he continued. Like many in Obama’s South Side neighborhood, Foules plans to root for the homeboy until the final inning.
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