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.