The Magazine

Mr. Obama's Neighborhood

The Democratic candidate has made his home in Chicago's Hyde Park, a place that's not like any other in America.

Jun 16, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 38 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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Hyde Park, Chicago

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, as if to say, "Don't we all have to put up with these cranky old domestic terrorists wandering through the yard?" But of course not every neighborhood has a former Weatherman and his wife, former Weathermoll Bernardine Dohrn, living in it, especially not as twin pillars of the community. 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?"

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. Just as important, political consultants often go to great lengths to make voters feel that way. Recall poor Michael Dukakis, the hapless Democratic presidential nominee in 1988. 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. 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, 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.

As Republicans felt about Brookline, so Obama supporters feel about Obama's neighborhood: It's a measure of the man. "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. 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. 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.

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.