Sunday, November 16, 2008

An Obama Boom in Hyde Park?

When The World Comes to Hyde Park
( ... and Then Goes Downtown For Dinner

posted by chicago pop

The week or so before and after the general election were, for this blogger, framed by the following encounters, in the order of their increasingly surreal occurrence:

1) a conversation with two Jehovah's Witnesses, within sight of Fort Obama, but canvassing for a higher power, who wanted to know what I thought of the Hudson homicide case. This was followed shortly thereafter by --

2) an interview with Fuji-TV, in which my dog and I were taped by a very attractive Japanese reporter while being asked what it felt like to be "at the center of the world"; which was then followed by --

3) a Belgian photographer for the French daily Le Monde, who asked if he could photograph my son as he burrowed into a pile of leaves, and then shocked me by saying nice things about America with a French accent; and, most recently --

4) being ambushed by a CLTV news crew one evening at Valois while enjoying the last chicken pot pies of the day.

"What do you think Obama will do for Hyde Park?" came the question from the man beside the unblinking fish-eye.

The question stumped me. Since then, to the southern-California-style soundtrack of helicopters overhead, I've had a chance to think about it, and here's my best guess:

Not much.

Which is not to say I don't expect great things from Obama as President. It's just that I'm not buying the breathless local media dish that Hyde Park ( and maybe all of Chicago ) is about to get a designer drug in the form of a counter cyclical and recession-proofing happy pill that will inoculate it from the macro- and micro-economic challenges of being an inner city neighborhood.

A sampling of booster-ish sentiment from Chicago Magazine (October 2008):

Meanwhile, the Hyde Park-Kenwood area, Obama's mixed neighborhood on the South Side, would almost certainly see more action and attention ...

... What's more, quick-buck artists would likely move in, starting stores that hawk T-shirts, mugs, and other presidential novelty items...

[Bob Mason, ED of the Southeast Chicago Commission] anticipates that the influx of the tourism trade, coupled with the everyday demands of a presidential entourage and the media, will boost business for existing restaurants and shops.
An article in Crains hitches these boosterish expectations to a particularly virulent local phobia: the fear of commercial development. Obama, according to some of the folks interviewed, is going to set off the economic explosion that will inevitably turn his adopted neighborhood into Lincoln Park-South.

Hyde Park will gain cachet as a place to live, but at the cost, some Hyde Parkers fear, of becoming a version of Lincoln Park, with more Starbucks, Gaps and residential teardowns.

"The Obama Water Park? No! People haven't thought enough about (commercialization), and maybe they should," says Ruth Knack, president of the Hyde Park Historical Society.

There will be no water park, of course, and Ms. Knack may be heartened to learn that Starbuck's has laid-off 1,000 workers and closed 600 U.S. stores in the last fiscal year. In fact, the Baskin-Robbins where Michelle and Barack Obama first kissed is now among the collection of empty storefronts along 53rd Street, Hyde Park's "Main Street."

The reality is that Barack Obama is not John D. Rockefeller, he's a man with a day-job and not a philanthropist. The benefits of his Presidency to Hyde Park are likely to be indirect and long-term, much more so than the direct benefits of, say, something like the (sotto voce!) Milton Friedman Institute for Research into Economics, with its hosts of visiting scholars and staff who will all spend money in the neighborhood.

In contrast, I have yet to see the Secret Service guys at Salonica's on 57th, and the lovely Miss Fuji-TV probably didn't stop at Thai 55 on her way out of town.

The fact is that the problems of inner city neighborhoods like Hyde Park and surrounding areas -- decades of disinvestment, lack of adequate retail amenities or commercial services, depopulation, struggling schools, a persistent level of crime, and racial segregation -- are so great that the per diem spending of Barack Obama's entourage is unlikely to affect them. And if they do, that effect may only be transient.

The tourism industry, for example, brought $2.6 million to Crawford, Texas, at its height in 2004.

Compare to that the amount of retail spending (including groceries) that leaves an area of the South Side that includes Hyde Park-Kenwood, Oakland, Bronzeville, Washington Park, and adjacent areas, to the tune of some $450 million, according to a 2004 market study cited in the Chicago Tribune.

So while that $2.6 million would certainly help the quick-buck artists, and the landlords they rent from, and the local restaurants their customers dine in, it's a long way from meeting the suppressed demand for basic needs on the South Side of Chicago.

And, as the press has recently observed, tourism revenue can wax and wane together with the fortunes of a president. The Times writes:

Of the seven gift shops [in Crawford, Texas] that sold "Western White House" mugs, T-shirts, fridge magnets, and golf balls, three have gone bust, only two still open regularly, and one has a sale on ...

"When it all started all of these [stores] were empty," Marilyn Judy, a teacher ... said. "Now they're returning to where they were."

Let's hope a better fate is in store for the Baskin Robbins of the Obama's early romance. And for 53rd Street. But it will take a lot more than the impulse spending of a presidential entourage to provide the housing, transit, jobs, and retail amenities that are needed in the President's own back yard.

*Photo used with permission of photographer, MPW

[This post also appears at Huffington Post Chicago]


!&# said...

It is irrational. Did Bill Clinton return to Arkansas after becoming president? I think the Obamas will be all too eager to leave it all behind, and if they do, who gives a hoot about Hyde Park except those of us who already do?

edj said...

I've seen the secret service guys at Boston MArket and at the Sanwich Shop at 53rd and Ellis. I'll guess a few of the cops go to Valois. Other than that, I read about the Obama's going to dinner on the north side and downtown.

I could see the Obama's coming back after the presidency. Chicago ain't Arkansas. I'd guess the U of C would have a decent shot at the library and I'm sure he'd like to live near it and I hear they like Lab School. I'm ot sure how much time they'll spend here during the term. It's not like the the Bushes or the Reagan's going to the Ranch, or elder Bush going to Kennebunkport.

Elizabeth Fama said...


Unless Obama screws something up, he'll have 8 years in D.C., at which point Malia will be in college, and Sasha will be in 10th grade. I doubt they'll run back to Hyde Park to have Sasha finish high school here, rather than have her finish at Sidwell Friends, or wherever they end up. (Of course, I think Malia should go to college at the U of C.)

Michelle is the one with roots on the south side, right?

edj said...

She has roots, but after 20 years ,so does he. Historically, it's very rare that a president does not move back to his home. Even Bush 41 built a house in Houston and spends a good amount of time there. It's usually seen as bad form to stick around DC looking over the new guy. While Clinton didn't go back to Arkanas, he at least went to New York as his home base (away from Hillary). The last one to stick around was Woodrow Wilson, but he was debilatated by a stroke. And who wants to go back to New Jersey?Taft only came back after being named Chief Justice.

edj said...

Actually, the only president to stay in DC immediately after his term was Wilson.

Obama would likely come back to Chicago, but he might move to some other neighborhood.

bornatreese said...

This blog's exclusively white perspective leaves it somewhat at a loss in this discussion. I know little about the thoughts of various economic classes of blacks on Hyde Park, but I do get the impression that Hyde Park is considered a desirable location, the lack of amenities compared with certain North Side neighborhoods notwithstanding. It seems like blacks and whites choose Hyde Park for different reasons, and have a different set of alternative neighborhoods in mind when comparing Hyde Park with some alternative. Also, after reading a Tribune article about some of Obama's actual close associates (that is, not Bill Ayers), my impression was of a Hyde Park (Kenwood) that works as an effective networking base and home base, even though of course you go all over the city for work and play.

chicago pop said...

bornatreese makes a valid point that different people may judge Hyde Park differently based on expectations shaped by experiences in different parts of the city, and that these experiences may code to race and class.

But, I think it's a bit too simple to argue, as bornatreese does, that: This blog's exclusively white perspective leaves it somewhat at a loss in this discussion.

To the extent that people are trying to predict what the Obama family is going to do in the future (which is not touched upon in the body of the post), this may have some relevance.

And yet, at a time when we have a President who has a black wife and a white mother, it seems that a bit more nuance is called for.

What, to be exact, is meant by "exclusively white perspective"?

Does that mean all the people who read or leave comments on this blog are white? I have no way of knowing that, I can't imagine anyone else does.

Does it mean that the ideas and opinions presented on this blog correlate exactly with skin color? That would be rather odd, since we know, for example, that Rev. Leon Finney supported plans for a hotel at Doctors Hospital (as does this blog); Alderman Leslie Hairston wants more commercial development in her ward, ranging from Starbucks to Aldi to Target (as does this blog); and Alderman Preckwinkle supports the idea of greater density on the 53rd Street corridor (as does this blog).

How are any of those positions white or black (or Asian for that matter, or even Latino?)

From the beginning, HPP has argued that the problems are Hyde Park are closely tied in with the problems of the South Side, and that to really improve the neighborhood that people know of as Hyde Park, we can't limit ourselves to the usual 1.5 square miles.

Some people may be satisfied that Hyde Park is better by comparison to any given disinvested area on the South Side . That's fine, but for us that's not enough.

edj said...

With an Obama presidency, the liklihood of a Chicago Olympics in2016 increases. If so, Hyde Park and the rest of the south side will be a very different place eight years from now. I remember seeing Obama saying he looks forward to walking to the games in Washington Park. I am guessing there will be a lot more for him to come home to.

Ben said...

Lincoln Park-South = South Loop.