Sunday, June 15, 2008

Mr. Obama's Neighborhood Redux

posted by Peter Rossi

Character assassination is the stock and trade of politically motivated writers.  In the presidential season, this reaches a fever pitch.  Backers of each candidate search far and wide for dirt.  Andrew Ferguson, desperate for something on Obama, has invented a new ploy- attack the candidate's neighborhood ("Mr. Obama's Neighborhood," The Weekly Standard, 6/16/08). 

I give Mr. Ferguson credit for creativity.  Usually, if you want to attack the candidate, you find some friends in dark shirts with yellow ties and fat envelopes. Or you look for philandering.  But most of those angles have been taken and Obama presents remarkably few personal foibles.   Let's take aim at Hyde Park -- it surely must be an easy mark.  We all know that university towns are a bit quirky.  We can always find some local talent to help ferret out the neighborhoods dirty past.

Mr. Ferguson's thesis is that Hyde Park is not really a neighborhood but a strange,  failed University of Chicago experiment.  An enclave of transients with no roots, just like Barack. Ironically, Mr. Ferguson's sources are all neighborhood residents who have lived in Hyde Park most of their adult lives and whose politics are about a mile to the left of the Weekly Standard.

It would be too easy to go through the article and point out the factual errors, inconsistencies, and misconceptions.  But the real problem is that Mr. Ferguson had the makings of an understanding of what makes Hyde Park special. He was blinded by the need to grind his political axe.

We can start with the University of Chicago.  The U of C is one of the world's best kept secrets; even Chicago cabbies don't know the difference between U of C and UIC. Other universities influence the world primarily via their alumni ("I went to Harvard, but I can't tell you what I learned there").  The U of C has had more than its fair share of influential alums, but has had the most impact on the rest of the world through the ideas of its scholars.  The U of C is fundamentally a modest place -- your ideas speak for you.   This presents some problems in developing neighborhood pride in the institution.

The University has also played a major role in the neighborhood.  It is popular to criticize the U for heavy-handed "urban renewal" that took place more than 40 years ago.  I  too wish that the U had left a few of the clubs and bars standing, but, without a major intervention, Hyde Park would be a bombed out non-neighborhood.   Street crime was a huge problem (even the alderman was shot) , housing prices were plummeting, students were afraid to walk on campus.  Today, street crime is at an all-time low and Hyde Park is one of the most stable neighborhoods in the city (too stable as we have been quick to point out here at HPP).

I'm not sure what is so bad about living in a neighborhood with "shade trees and lawns  and stately brick mansions and huge, tidied up apartment houses."  Mr. Ferguson alludes to the diversity of our housing stock.  There is a bit of something for everyone in Hyde Park from mid rise to the Prairie school.  I  really can't think of any urban university in the US that has it so good (Evanston might come the closest).

Mr. Ferguson fails to mention the lakefront.  We have the best part of what is truly a unique Chicago asset.  There is nothing like the Point elsewhere on the Chicago lakefront.

There are the delights of the rest of Chicago, certainly one of the most vibrant US cities.  

Mr. Ferguson takes Hyde Park to task for being elitist. Hyde Park is certainly more diverse in income and race than any other university town in the US.  But there are no slums or housing projects in Hyde Park.  Is there something wrong with that?

It is true that there are parts of Hyde Park that are solidly upper middle class.  But there is less interest in material goods and more interest in ideas  than in the standard affluent suburbs.  You can take your children to the neighborhood play lot and not worry about swathing them in the latest children's fashions or impressing the other parents with your knowledge of vacation spots and chic restaurants.  At the Lab School, learning is more than just a means to the ivy end.  Black and white kids are seen at the same lunch tables.

Hyde Park is home to a fascinating array of people who are NOT affiliated with the University of Chicago.  A friend is a great example.  She came to Hyde Park in the 50s as a stewardess for United Airlines and ended up marrying a Chicago attorney and raising a family in Hyde Park. Several of her grown children still live here.  Many of the people I know in Hyde Park are second or even third generation Hyde Parkers.  Claims of transiency help Ferguson paint a  picture of an alienated community but have no basis in fact.  The only true transients are the some 4 thousand undergrads; a drop in the bucket for a community of over 40,000.

One of the most heartening recent developments has been the influx of "new blood" to the neighborhood.  Families are attracted to Hyde Park by the unique suburban (for want of a better word)/urban aspects.  Wicker Park or Bucktown may be relentlessly hip, but try schooling your kids there or fighting your way to the lakefront.  Mr. Obama and his family are a part of this new crew.

Mr. Ferguson's parting shot is at black Hyde Park residents: "the blacks who moved here have the same sense of displacement ..."  I note that most of the quotes in Mr. Ferguson's article are from white Hyde Parkers.  He must have some hidden sources for the black ennui.

A recent Chicago Tribune featured an obituary that speaks volumes to this point.  This fellow graduated from Howard University medical school and got his start on the battlefields of the Korea.  The obituary goes on to cite this man's many achievements and grateful former patients.  Where did he make his home for more than 40 years? Hyde Park, of course.  

note: in the interest of full disclosure, I am a supporter of Mr. Obama. However, it is the distorted and incomplete view of Hyde Park that I object to in Mr. Ferguson's piece.


The Woodlawn Wonder said...

Hi I live in of the most hellish slums in the country.

That would be Woodlawn to the rest of the world.

Apparently Mr. Ferguson hasn't been reading my blog.

Peter Rossi said...

Apparently, Mr. Ferguson didn't do much in the way of research. not too surprising since his purpose was to bash Obama not spread the truth.

Hyde said...

I've heard a much more credible argument that Hyde Park is not a neighborhood - we don't have a funeral home.

Hyde Park is inclusive at its core. Ferguson's ax to grind is that you can't conserve what was by welcoming new people in.

rdb said...


Good refutation, but you don't seem to make explicit the writer's objective: Obama is the Other, he is not American. It's right there in the subtitle: "Like No Place in America."

To me, Hyde Park is lot like any college town or suburb -- very education- and kid-focused, kinda boring for young singles, generally pretty with a diverse set of residents. The biggest differences are a) Hyde Park is 10 minutes from the downtown area of one of the world's great cities, and b) as a "black" urban area, we have virtually no chain stores or restaurants.

David Brook's (a U of C alum) inane column about Obama and Applebee's (wherein Brooks revealed his own Applebee's inexperience -- there is NO salad bar) fails to take into account places like the Valois, of which Obama is a customer. It's a low-cost, decent value neighborhood spot--the kind of place Applebee's fills in for when the local businesses go under.

I don't know if Brooks ever ate at Valois when he attended the college (maybe he never went north of 55th street?). But again, the objective is to smear Obama as an "alien" unfamiliar with "real American" life.

Famac said...

Sorry Peter - that article is largely accurate and hardly beating up on Obama. I would say its fairly honest about the area, and is pretty much praising the guy. His book is a "small masterpiece?" That's a slam? (please read the article bloggers).

That rubbish about Hyde Park being a home for conservatives is untrue - but he contradicts it in many places. We even have business school faculty who support Obama's classic liberal socialism posing as "change."

Hyde Park also has its share of brutal areas -- its no where near as nice as this guy claims -- but many of us chose to exclude it from our personal definition of the neighborhood. (The closer you live to the Golden Triangle, the smaller Hyde Park gets.)

Peter Rossi said...

exactly what planet does famac live on?

it seems to vary from day to day.

rereading the article or reading my summary would be a good way to start a return to reality

EdJ said...

I appreciate a good political hit job (politics is a spectator sport), regardless of which party it comes from (and they do come from both parties). The problem I had is that he did such a bad job of it. The rootless elitist didn't even stick because the article was so unpersuasive.

One of the problems Hyde Park has had isn't that people are rootless, it's that some people who have deep roots don't want any change. They want the neighborhood to be like it was in the 1930s, or 1960s, or 1980s. They are for change, but it has to be the "right" kind of change. Which is why it takes so long for thing to get done around here.

Any one of us could have done a much better job, and most people who post here like Obama. There's so much he could have worked with, but it seemed like he got his intelligence on the neighborood wrong.

As a resident of Hyde Park, I'm insulted by this botched hit job.

chicago pop said...

One of the problems Hyde Park has had isn't that people are rootless, it's that some people who have deep roots don't want any change.

Excellent point, and a huge unacknowledged irony of this article. It's like he gave a speech with his fly unzipped. Or maybe it's like he went and did a quick study of cuneiform at the Oriental Institute to prep on modern Iraqi politics.

A deep dive into the Co-Op conflict would have revealed the dynamic that EDJ refers to: that there is an old-time core of folks that, in a very conservative way that you would think capital-C Conservatives would like, cling to things that don't work but are old, but that this generational core is starting to move aside as change starts to accelerate.

Missed all of that, focused on Cold War(d) history.

As for the author's master metaphor, the "rootlessness" of the South Side (in contrast to solid suburbia, most of which didn't exist 40 years ago?) HP is a very stable neighborhood, with relatively high rates of long-term residency. You want rootless, go to the South Loop, or even Lakeview.

GF said...

I had a hard time getting past his parenthetical comment about the UofC's police force being the 2nd largest in the state. It took me all of ten minutes to dig up the State report with such figures. The UofC's department is relatively large if you count civilians and part-time officers but it's not even the second largest in Cook County (The County Sheriff, O'Hare and Evanston are bigger, for starters). But it sounds ominous that the force behind urban renewal has a giant police department, so who needs to worry about facts?

EdJ said...

One of the things that bothered me the most about the article is that it bought, hook, line, and sinker, the deeply rooted, old line argument that the university is the source of all the problems in the neighborhood. As Pop noted in earlier posts on another thread, these are people who supported urban renewal and benfitted by the property value increases that followed. In the NIMBY mind, new arrivals are rootless and bad for the neighborhood because they want change. They want to freeze the neighborhood along with Ted Williams' head in a post urban renewal cryogenic freezer.

bornatreese said...

I think it is actually called the Golden Rectangle, not Triangle, but I've never heard anyone but certain real estate people or very long time Hyde Parkers use the phrase. I don't live within it, and neither do most people in Hyde Park. And it never occurred to me that the people over on the fair side excluded the rest of us from their definition of the neighborhood.

Raymond said...


What parts of Hyde Park qualify as "brutal" in your opinion? I think I've seen every corner of the neighborhood, but maybe I could use enlightening.

Otto said...

I think it is actually called the Golden Rectangle, not Triangle, but I've never heard anyone but certain real estate people or very long time Hyde Parkers use the phrase. [bornatreese]

I switched to "Golden Pentangle" shortly after moving within the perimeter.

But it sounds ominous that the force behind urban renewal has a giant police department, so who needs to worry about facts? [gf]

I've been hearing "second largest in the state" for over 20 years. (The SSA reports "largest private police force in the country.") I do wonder if the 'second' and 'state' once had a grounding in reality.

Famac said...

53rd and Drexel. That general area has had a pretty big time crime problem over the last few years. Cornell Avenue is also pretty rough north of 55th. Finally, you would have to be out of your mind to go to the Point at 10 PM.

cjb said...

What are the boundaries of the golden triangle / rectangle / pentagram / dodecahedron?

I think I'm in it and want to make sure I have bragging rights.

Famac said...

A little bit of guessing - but it would include Blackstone (57th to 59th). Dorchester (56th to 59th). Kenwood (55th to 59th). Kimbark (56th to 59TH). Woodlawn (56th to 59th). So I suppose thats more of a rectangle than a triangle.

David Farley said...

Over the years some people where I work have told me they draw the limit at 53rd St. - they won't go north of that.

And some people have even told me their limit is 55th St. - they won't go north of that. Granted, most of these people work in Hyde Park and live elsewhere. (I live somewhere in-between those two streets.)

I wonder how many people commute to the University but never set foot off campus, except for the stroll to/from the 57th St. Metra station.

And there are people who, if they go to the lakefront, won't wander off the path that runs around the Point.

J/tati said...

re: 53rd & Drexel. Well, my shop is right there and while I guess I know what Famac is saying, this corner of HP is really nothing compared to the blight or street crime in our surrounding communities. True, there have been shootings, but 99% of the time it's fine.

Stephen said...

I used to walk on the point after 10pm when our son was first born. I didn't know I was out of my mind, although I was sleep deprived.

Really, people won't go north of 53rd???

I do think Famac has a point; there have been many gang related shootings in that area. Murder is generally classified as brutal; but I walk around that area all the time (even though I live in the Rectangle, apparently - but why is it Golden?) and never feel like it is a "brutal" area.

One of the things that struck me about the article (other than it was not intended to be factually accurate), was that it never bothers to define what HP is being compared to? What is the "average American town". Certainly MOST "American towns" have crime rates substantially lower than HP, i.e. "relatively low crime rates". Also, how is the intellectualism of HP different from Evanston, Madison, Cambridge, Ann Arbor or any other college town (granted, HP is smaller, so there is a greater concentration). And sure HP is different than any other neighborhood in Chicago, as is every other neighborhood different than any other.

Also, the impression given is there are no low income persons in HP. ??? Really, I thought one of the "diversity" elements of HP was economic diversity. Granted, there aren't many on the lowest rung, but economic diversity is probably greater than most other American towns.

This is pure and simple propaganda.

Raymond said...

Well, according to famac, I live right in high-crime central. It never felt that way to me.

Anonymous said...

People who don't live in Hyde Park tend to have very skewed/uninformed ideas about what it is. Case in point:

A couple years ago, I was riding the Metra home from work or someplace. There had been some kind of event at Soldier Field (Fire game or something like that). The train was packed so I was standing in the vestibule with a lot of other people. As we passed 47th Street and 53rd Street, a kid who was probably about 7 or 8 looked at the collection of high-rises on the lest and said to his father "what kind of buildings are those?". As God is my witness, the father said "Projects."

Just one example of how ignorant people can be when they don't venture outside of their little comfort zone, whether it's the "Golden Quadrant-of-various-geometric-shapes" or the next neighborhood over.

David Farley said...

I agree with Greg. On more than one occasion I've had perfectly nice people who've never been to Hyde Park blurt out, "but that's a slum!" when I tell them where I live.

EdJ said...

Living near 53rd and Drexel, I didn't realize what a pit my area is. I'll keep that in mind the next time my kids are playing in front of the house.

While there has been some drug dealing around that area and a couple of murders a couple of years back, things have gotten better, particulalrly with the addition of the police camera. I realize that old time Hyde Parkers, who commonly refer to my area as part of Washington Park, probably think of western Hyde Park as that place they never went to when they were growing up in the neighborhood. Times change. You might even feel comfortable walking to the 51st Street green line station and taking the el.

EdJ said...

Let's think about whatthe weekly Standard could have written. How Obama was embraced by rooted Hyde Park establishment. These are the same people who tried to keep the socialist Co-op grocery store open, who would rather keep a building open becaue it's not the "correct" kind of development, and would rather let the Point erode into the lake because they don't like the look of the new shoreline protection. The Senator, rather than standing up to his "liberal backers in Hyde Park", gets an earmark for yet another study that will likely support the compromise plan.

He could have called it "Change we can believe in?" The article writes itself. And I like Obama.

Peter Rossi said...

i love the myth of the "second largest police force." This is truly an urban myth that Ferguson got from some of the addled Hyde Parkers he got the "scoop" from. It is quite amazing how these leftist folks become stooges of the right!

It is the Golden Rectangle, 55-59th, Ellis to "IC" or Metra tracks.

David Farley said...

But I like telling people that myth. In fact, I tell them it's the second largest private police force in the world, and nobody ever disagrees. They just want to know what the largest is (Wackenhut?).

For no particular reason, I also like to tell people the Taft "Fountain of Time" statue on the Midway is called "Lincoln's Gettysburg Address". People seem to find something in that answer that works for them.

Ben said...

I just read the Ferguson piece and I'd argue its certainly ill-informed in some respects. First, the characterization as a "rootless" place is frankly absurd. For my parents and virtually every person I knew grew up, we may have lived in Hyde Park but we our roots were in Chicago. My mother grew up in Woodlawn and my father on the West Side. I have friends that have remained in Hyde Park and will likely raise their children there.
Second, the view of Hyde Park/Kenwood as small pocket surrounded by ghetto has seriously changed from the '80s-early '90s. When I was a kid/teenager, walking beyond 47th street was the danger move--not 53rd street. In fact, King High School (a high school basketball powerhouse in the late '80s and early '90s) was closer to my parents house than Kenwood High School--yet it couldn't of felt farther when I was growing up. Today, the middle income housing development north of 47th Street has drastically changed that area and it shocks me when I see people walk to the Greenline. Third, this Berkeley with snow stuff is crap. Hyde Park is not simply a haven of the University. Even though I went to Lab from K-12, I considered the U of C to be a part of the Hyde Park/Kenwood community--not the other way around.

As for these comments about the Golden Triangle, I've never really heard the comment before. But are people suggesting the Golden Triangle is nicer than North Kenwood? If so, I disagree.

One other comment: I think Lab was a great school, but I'd argue its a bit naive to suggest it wasn't meant to be an elite University feeder. The math and science training was beyond top notch--its why kids have interest in U of C and MIT. In addition, I'd guess 20% of people from my class went to the Ivy League, another 20% went to the little Ivy's (Williams, Smith, etc.) and 70-75% (including me) went to schools ranked in the top 25 universities or top 25 liberal arts colleges.