Spending time on Barack Obama Drive

May 19, 2010


(photo by Lee Bey)

The southern suburb of Calumet Park last week said it wants to officially rename 127th--the town's east/west main street--after President Barack Obama. An honorary designation was approved by a 5-0 vote of the village council. Now the small suburb wants state permission to officially rename the town's 10-block stretch in honor of the 44th president, the Chicago Tribune said.

No surprise. The Obama name remains a hot cultural property. There are streets named for Obama in St. Louis and Opa-Locka, FL. Schools in Hempsted, NY; Oakland, CA; Compton, CA;‚  St. Paul, MN and Pittsburgh bear his name. A central Japanese fishing town named Obama had its name long before the president, but that that didn't stop it from doing a little capitalizing on the now-famous moniker of the nation's first black president.

Tributes like these usually come after a president's term. And even then, not all presidents. Lyndon Johnson took the helm after JFK's assassination, enacted landmark civil rights legislation and created the Great Society social programs that lifted millions out of poverty. But little outside of Texas is named for him. Adlai E. Stevenson ran for president twice and lost both times to Eisenhower, but a boat load of stuff is named for him, including three Illinois schools, two Michigan schools, a Bronx school and Chicago's Stevenson Expressway.

I wanted to get a closer look at potentially the first Chicago-area thoroughfare named for President Obama. So over the weekend, I drove to Calumet Park and strolled down the 127th. It's a wide street with humble mid-20th century commercial buildings. On the strip, you can get your hair done, buy a very used car, rent a vacant apartment, buy clothes, get insurance, groceries, a cellphone and Chinese food.‚  A new strip mall is going in at 127th and Loomis where a gas station and dry cleaners used to be.


(photo by Lee Bey)


(photo by Lee Bey)

Dillinger Dogs near 127th and Loomis--which serves a mighty fine hot dog--has pictures of Obama among other dignitaries and celebs (from Sylvester Stallone to actress/personality LisaRae) adorning the counter. The Obama photos were there before the village's decision regarding 127th: the president's old state senate district included Calumet Park.


(photo by Lee Bey)


(photo by Lee Bey)

I drove away from Calumet Park with mixed feelings. It was heartening to see a municipality willing to tap into the feeling of hope and opportunity that Obama's election symbolized. But I would liked to see the town's announcement followed up with a true master plan--or a vision--for significant and comprehensive physical changes to the street that would be consistent with what Calumet Park sees as Obama's ideals.

The town has a few tools in its box that could help. The village's Economic Development department webpage says 108,000 cars a day pass through the town via its main streets of 127th and 119th; that it has a AAA bond rating and has not been shy about spending millions to lure distribution facilities, lodging and other businesses to Calumet Park. (Although I wonder what Obama might think of this: Among its incentives to developers, the page also said Calumet Park "does not impose 'Green Roof', 'LEEDS Certification' or other costly environmental requirements on developers.")

The town is equipped, then, to rethink the street. Should the street have well-planned green space, a new library, public art, a school? Can zoning be adjusted to encourage more people to live on the street as well as shop? Should the new Obama Drive have a focal point--a destination---rather than continue to exist as an uncurated line of stores on a wide, but famously-named street.

It might be a tall order for the small suburb, but at the outset it is no less improbable than was Obama's candidacy three years ago. All it takes is hard work.