Sunday, August 8, 2010

Dreams of Her Father: Rebecca Janowitz's Hyde Park

posted by chicago pop

Rebecca Janowitz's recent book, Culture of Opportunity. Obama's Chicago: The People, Politics, and Ideas of Hyde Park, exemplifies its title. With the election of superstar Barack Obama to the Presidency in November, 2008, the opportunity was ripe for someone to make the most of Hyde Park's new-found fame and to clarify for a curious world, once and for all, just what bound the new President to his adopted neighborhood. Someone had to do it. Ms. Janowitz has. But she has also done much more than that.

She is disarmingly conscious of the stakes of her enterprise for the reputation of her small, relatively unknown neighborhood. She writes in the concluding lines of her book,

As Obama is judged during his presidency, Hyde Park will be judged. How helpful is the neighborhood's understanding of community, progress, and reform? In a real way, Obama's ascent is an opportunity for Hyde Park to showcase its ideals and its values, but it also creates a risk.

In my view, the gamble was well worth taking, and through her efforts the author has won for us a much-needed and densely argued book. It is not an antiquarian's collection of entertaining yarns and curious facts like much local history, but a semi-scholarly argument for what Janowitz believes to be a coherent tradition of reform that links the earliest activists of 19th century Hyde Park with its most illustrious living neighbor, the nation's 44th President.

Culture of Opportunity would be a welcome contribution to Chicago history and the history of various reform movements of the last 150 years without Barack Obama. But it is, in inspiration and conception, a book about Barack Obama, even if he himself remains largely unseen in the pages of the narrative. That is because he himself is less an actor in his own right -- it is too soon to tell, after all, what the significance of his story will be -- than a symbolic culmination of a small neighborhood's history, populated by a series of out sized figures, who between them passed along a sacred flame of justice and reform: from Paul Cornell, on to Charles Merriam, Mary McDowell, Julius Rosenwald, Leon Despres, Earl Dickerson, Paul Douglas, and perhaps most movingly, Harold Washington.

In one sense, I wish this worthy story had been told without reference to Obama. The opening chapter of the book, "Life in Hyde Park," while it succeeds in capturing certain intangibles of neighborhood life, is nonetheless preoccupied with the media controversies of Obama's campaign in a way that does not age well, nearly half-way through Obama's presidency. In the midst of an unpopular foreign war and the aftermath of the worst environmental disaster in the nation's history, the few pages devoted to distancing the President from the likes of Bill Ayers and Reverend Jeremiah Wright seem irrelevant, more a settling of scores with forgotten right-wing bloggers or a dated marketing pitch than a solid perspective from which to launch an argument.

Culture of Opportunity is a book written by an insider who has worked very hard to promote the success of outsiders. Ms. Janowitz, unlike President Obama or several of the other star politicians she catalogs, is a native Hyde Parker who, as the dust-jacket blurb indicates, "has been active in Hyde Park affairs and in Chicago-area public service most of her adult life." Indeed, much of her argument is structured around the idea that Hyde Park is a unique incubator of outsiders who have left it with an equally unique culture of opposition, for reasons of geography, demography, and institutional affiliation. It is possible to read the book and see the political destiny of 5th Ward Alderman Leon Despres -- immortal for having been the sole Alderman to oppose Mayor Richard J. Daley in his day -- foretold in the plotting of Hyde Park as a gracious garden suburb, far from yet cautiously linked to the squalor and vice of Chicago.

To Hyde Park's insider-outsider dynamic, which helped to root early Progressive, pedagogical, labor, feminist, and socialist causes in the neighborhood, was eventually added an overriding concern with racial justice. This latter concern provides the lens through which Culture of Opportunity is written, and it clearly owes much to the author's father. We are introduced to Morris Janowitz early on, who the author describes as a Jewish war veteran. Taking advantage of the GI Bill, Janowitz père wrote a dissertation for the University of Chicago's Sociology Department after World War II, before becoming a professor at the same institution and pursuing research comparing European anti-Semitism and American racism. "To Janowitz ... [racists] were close cousins of the recently defeated fascists of Europe, a problem left over from the war, waiting to be solved." Something like the election of Barack Obama, which provides the book with its raison d'être,was literally the dream of its author's father.

No book can explore every dimension of a problem and still sell to general readers. Occasionally, however, unarticulated themes emerge so powerfully from the evidence itself that the reader wonders why they were not conceptualized. Morris Janowtiz is among the first of a list of persons mentioned in the book, including Julius Rosenwald, Leon Despres, Emil Hirsch, Abner Mikva, Arnold Wolf, and others, who have one thing in common: they were Jewish. "By 1950," we learn in Chapter 5, Hyde Park-Kenwood's "largest ethnic group, about 40 percent, were Jews of European descent." And again on the back book flap: "The willingness of Hyde Parkers, especially progressive Jews, to rally behind Harold Washington helped him to become Chicago's first black mayor."

As much as we might be interested to know how Obama's career was assembled and tested in Hyde Park, the details listed above point to an equally interesting question, related to the first, but neglected by Janowitz: Why is it that Hyde Park-Kenwood came to host such a influential community of progressive, initially affluent Reform Jews? Why did so many Jews stay in Hyde Park after the War and through the period of racial turnover? And how did their particular understanding of racial politics shape the larger discourse, down to the successful presidential campagin of Barack Obama?

This seems like a less than negligible question. For over half the lifetime of the neighborhood Janowitz chronicles, American Jews were less than first-class citizens, however affluent some of them became. This is well known, but the dynamics of this particular struggle are shadowed by the focus on Barack Obama as the teleology of American racial politics. Culture of Opportunity may arguably be read as the story of black emancipation as it played out in Hyde Park, through a Jewish-American lens. It would be interesting to turn the eyeglass back the other way.

And this is where the risks identified by Janowitz at her book's conclusion become most apparent. For as much as Hyde Parkers think of their community as racially "diverse," in reality, it does not reflect the changing ethnic face of America. There is more diversity within a quarter mile radius of Devon and Western, or Irving Park and Cicero, than in all of Hyde Park-Kenwood. The uniqueness of Hyde Park politics may have been instrumental in propelling Obama to the presidency, but the Hyde Park "model" -- which Janowitz carefully admits has not been replicable -- may be limited in its extension to a nation that is less and less defined as black and white. The fact that Obama chose "black" as his identity on the 2010 census reflects less the global, cosmopolitan reality of his biography, than the distillation of this experience into a much simpler -- and somewhat falsified -- South Side Chicago dichotomy.

There is some sense of this limitation in the European response to Obama, swinging as it has from initial enthusiasm to subsequent disillusionment, at least among spokespersons for various social democratic positions. In reading the comment sections of a variety of left-leaning European papers, it is not uncommon to come across statements such as: "Well, just because the color of his skin is black, doesn't mean he will change everything." At a global level, Obama's racial identity may turn out to be less important than the continuation of some of his predecessor's most controversial policies. What, then, of the Hyde Park model?

Hyde Park, drawing on its heritage and building on its precedents, helped to propel a talented black man to greatness. This is, for all intents and purposes, the central assertion of Culture of Opportunity. It is a persuasive one. Racial politics have defined Hyde Park politics for over half a century, so it only makes sense that the base of personal and institutional networks anchored in Hyde Park would serve as an incomparable resource to any liberal African American wishing to strike out on an ambitious political career. Hyde Park, much more so than the larger City of Chicago, can justifiably take pride in the role it played in launching Obama's career.

Whether the Hyde Park experience equipped the 44th President of the United States with the ability to bring change about, rather than only symbolize it, remains an open question.

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