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The Neighborhood That Launched Obama

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The Neighborhood That Launched Obama

Barack Obama voting in Hyde Park. (AP/Charles Rex Arbogast)

For quite a while now, reporters and political opponents have been dissecting Illinois Senator Barack Obama’s career—analyzing exactly what made his meteoric rise possible. People have picked through his voting records, who he selected as political mentors, which law firm he chose to work for. Today, we take a look at one of the first and most basic decisions Obama made to get his start—which Chicago neighborhood to move to. Many Chicagoans know his neighborhood of Hyde Park has a special niche in the city, its history, and its politics. In some ways Hyde Park helped make Obama.

I am standing at 5429 South Harper Avenue. I’m right outside the three story brick apartment building where Barack Obama lived when he was a community organizer in the late 1980’s. It’s on the eastern edge of Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. After he lived here, Obama went to Harvard Law School and then came back a few years later with plans to go into politics. In 1992, he married Michelle Robinson, and the couple was faced with the choice of where to move and build Obama’s political career. Out of all the places they could have picked, they ended up buying a condo just 5 blocks east of here

BLACK: It was to his advantage that he started in Hyde Park.

Timuel Black is a Chicago Historian and educator. For decades, he’s lived in Kenwood, the neighborhood just north of Hyde Park. Black is also a friend of Obama’s and occasionally advised him when he was getting started. Black says from the beginning, Hyde Park and Obama were a match.

On one side you had one of the most unique neighborhoods in the city.

BLACK: Liberal, intellectual and active.

In a city that’s one of the most racially segregated in the nation—Hyde Park is integrated—a good fit for Obama’s complex mixed-race background.
In a city of blue-collar credentials, Hyde Park revolves around the University of Chicago—a good fit for Obama’s Harvard Law intellectual background. In a city dominated by machine-style politics, Hyde Park has a history of electing independents—appealing to Obama who made an effort to keep his distance from the city’s political machine. Black says then you had Obama’s appeal to the neighborhood.

BLACK: He had the education, style, charisma, a beautiful wife who was with him—and who’d grown up, not necessarily in Hyde Park but close to Hyde Park, and having friends all over Hyde Park, and he had ambition and he was relatively young.

Black says the neighborhood was also more understanding about some things that might have been problems for Obama in other parts of the city. Like that he’s not a Chicago native and he could be viewed as a highbrow intellectual.

CALHOUN: Do you think a candidate like a Barack Obama, a part-time law professor at the University of Chicago, could have gotten his start in any other area of the city.
BLACK: I seriously doubt whether he could have progressed even to the point of state senate in any other part of the city.
MIKVA: It would have been a lot harder, and it would have been a lot slower.

Abner Mikva is a former federal judge, White House Counsel and Congressman—also a long time Hyde Park resident. He’s also a longtime friend and advisor of Obama.

MIKVA: It was a natural for him to settle here. First of all, the fact that he was an outsider caused no problems for him at all. They couldn’t care less if he’d been here 3 months or 30 years.

In 1996, Obama won a state senate district that’s anchored by Hyde Park. And in the following years he learned the political strengths and weaknesses of the neighborhood. In 2000, he faced the limitations of his neighborhood support when he launched a doomed bid against Congressman Bobby Rush—performing dismally outside Hyde Park.

Later, he took advantage of his independent Hyde Park base. Mikva says it was part of what allowed him to rise so rapidly—and part of what put him in position for his 2004 senate run.

MIKVA: He was able to leap ahead in Democratic party circles even though he wasn’t going the regular route of being a precinct captain, and running for the city council, and then the state legislature, then 20 years later for the congress, then 10 years later, if he’s lucky, for the senate. He’s leapfrogged all those places because it is Hyde Park. He was a base independent of the party apparatus.

Since he catapulted to the national level, Obama’s relationship with the neighborhood has changed—especially with some of the people who helped him get his start. He’s still very popular in Hyde Park. But behind closed doors and not for attribution, some local leaders will tell you that after his primary win for U.S. Senate Obama cut ties with some of his early supporters in ways that left some sour feelings. There’s also a notable split among Hyde Park supporters who were there at the beginning and watched Obama’s climb.

DOBRY: I’m Alan Mora Dobry
DOBRY: I’m Lois Friedberg Dobry

Alan Dobry and Lois Friedberg-Dobry have lived in Hyde Park since the 1950’s. They’re prominent political activists in the neighborhood—and longtime grassroots organizers. Alan Dobry was a Democratic Party committeeman in Hyde Park for 16 years. In 1996, Obama ensured his primary win for state senate by challenging all of his opponents’ nominating petitions—knocking them all off the ballot. The Dobrys helped him do it.

DOBRY: We were able to show that all these petitions had very serious errors.

But these days the Dobrys take slightly different views on Obama. Both still support him—but as Obama has risen to national prominence, on the local level he’s allied himself more closely with the city’s political machine, including an endorsement of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. That bothers Alan—who says it goes against Obama’s Hyde Park roots.

DOBRY: We got him elected as an anti-machine independent, and he has now cozied up to the machine. That doesn’t mean I’m going to vote Republican or work for the Republicans—but I’m less enthusiastic about Barack than when I saw him as an anti-machine independent.

Lois says she doesn’t like seeing Obama ally himself with the political forces Hyde Park traditionally fought—but she understands it.

DOBRY: I still look at you know, the way he votes. The way he votes in the senate hasn’t changed measurably. He’s been a legislator for 13 years. I don’t see that he’s changed his basic agenda. But I do see that he has looked at the ways of implementing that agenda, and has learned what you have to do to get some of it through.

I asked historian Timuel Black what he thought of the Dobrys’ differences of opinion. He says it doesn’t surprise him because Alan is a purist and Lois is a realist. Black says he understands both sides—and he’s heard that debate among Hyde Parkers before. Ultimately, he says he wonders how Hyde Park’s values might be reflected in an Obama administration—especially since Obama wouldn’t be where he is without Hyde Park.

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