50 Wards in 50 Weekdays: 4th Ward’s pro-smiling, anti-littering Pearl Chen is a Chicagoan because of President Obama

June 13, 2012

(WBEZ/Sam Hudzik)
Pearl Chen, outside the tennis courts at Kenwood Park.

Pearl Chen says her neighborhood is quiet. The residents are accountants, or work at the University of Chicago or are students there. Quiet students – no loud parties.

“People are nice,” the former Nebraska resident tells me. “However, compared to [where I lived before], it doesn’t seem [like people] say ‘Hello.’”


“So, my husband and I actually start initiating, say ‘Hello’ to everybody…we bump into,” she says, laughing. “They’re kind of shocked and then…wait a few seconds and then [they reply], ‘Oh, hello.’”

Chen was born in Taiwan 62 years ago, but has lived in various places around the U.S. for about 40 years. She moved to Chicago from Omaha about a year ago with her husband, Bill Nichols.

“Actually, let me tell you – we didn’t really marry, but I got a ring. Because we think that piece of paper [has] no worth compared to here,” she says, pointing to her heart.

Chen and Nichols moved to Chicago soon after they both retired. She was an emergency room physician. He was a top tennis coach at the University of Nebraska – Omaha. When Chen and I chat, she’s actually sitting on a bench outside a tennis court, with Bill on the court a few feet away.

But back to the big, post-retirement move: Why did they pick Hyde Park?

“Because [President] Obama live[s] in Hyde Park,” she says, laughing, but serious. “That is the main reason.”

“I like to live in a place [that’s] more blue state, instead of red state.”

The president got them thinking about Hyde Park, but the neighborhood sold itself.

“We drove [a] couple times from Omaha to here, look around, and then we just [fell] in love,” Chen says. “It’s just a sense of…we like to have a [cultural] mix. Different race[s] live here, and then also because [of the] University of Chicago….We feel great that we can very easily walk down to University of Chicago, so we can attend a lot of activities.”

While she’s a new Hyde Parker, it’s clear she takes more ownership in the neighborhood than most people do.


“My husband and I started picking up the trash on the street, on our street,” Chen said. “Every morning…we…start picking up the street.”

One time, she saw an ice cream wrapper fly out the window of a car driven by teenagers.

“So I immediately say, ‘Hey, stop.’ So I went...to pick up the trash – right in the middle of the street,” she said. “Oh, my God. They just [were] very nasty to me, yelling at me, shouting at me with very bad words.”

“I just couldn’t believe that. That's horrible.”

Chen does not blame city officials for the litter.

“I think that actually the community themselves…they need to clean it...you cannot…depend on the city, depend on [Mayor] Emanuel,” she says.

Oh, about Emanuel: Chen didn't let me finish my question about the new mayor before declaring her support.

“I’m so excited he is the mayor. I’m so excited. I love this guy since he was on Obama’s team.”

And with that, it’s time to let Chen get on with her day. Nichols' tennis match looks just about finished; he was playing a police officer.

That’s convenient, because our new Hyde Park residents had noticed a row of cars on their street that morning, each with their side mirrors knocked off. They were going to ask the cop what they should do.

Let's review: smiles, litter cleanup, community watch. These are the kind of neighbors everyone should have.