June 10, 2008

THE CONFORMITY OF DIVERSITY:

Mr. Obama's Neighborhood: The Democratic candidate has made his home in Chicago's Hyde Park, a place that's not like any other in America. (Andrew Ferguson, 06/16/2008, Weekly Standard)

When Barack Obama was briefly embarrassed earlier this year by his association with the onetime bomb-builder and wannabe bomb-exploder William Ayers, he blamed his neighborhood, sort of. "He's a guy who lives in my neighborhood," Obama said with a shrug, as if to say, "Don't we all have to put up with these cranky old domestic terrorists wandering through the yard?" But of course not every neighborhood has a former Weatherman and his wife, former Weathermoll Bernardine Dohrn, living in it, especially not as twin pillars of the community. [...]

A friend once described Hyde Park as "Berkeley with snow," and it does indeed have the same graduate-student flavor, the same political activism and boho intellectualism, the same alarmingly high number of men wandering about looking like NPR announcers--the wispy beards and wire rims, the pressed jeans and unscuffed sneakers, the backpacks and the bikes. (This is a pretty good description of William Ayers, by the way.) But the similarities can be overdone. "Not 'Berkeley with snow,'  " a U. of C. professor said, when I mentioned my friend's comment to him. "It's the snow that keeps us from being Berkeley. The snow and the cold keep the street people away. It drives everyone inside. You don't have all the students who dropped out of school or graduated and refused to leave. If they stay, they do something. If not, they get out of town. It's too cold just to hang around."

This contributes to the neighborhood's relatively low crime rate and, in part, to the university's reputation as a home for squares and nerds, a buttoned-down "bastion of conservatism," in the phrase of one magazine writer. And the conservatism, by popular account, infects the neighborhood at large, tempers its politics, and adds to its diversity. But the reputation for right-wingery is based on a simple if imprecise bit of data that shocks the delicate sensibilities of college professors: Of the tens of thousands of faculty who have taught at the University of Chicago over the past half-century, perhaps as many as 65 have, at some point in their lives, voted for a Republican. Many of these insurgents were either disciples of the university's most famous faculty member, the free-market economist Milton Friedman, or were drawn to the school because of him; others came under the influence of Allan Bloom, the Straussian philosopher, who ran the university's Olin Center for Inquiry into the Theory and Practice of Democracy, along with a few classically minded scholars. Bloom is dead. So is Friedman. The Olin Center closed its doors in 2005. Their disciples and colleagues who remain at the university aren't getting any younger. It's unlikely that the school's wobbly reputation for conservatism, and the neighborhood's, will survive them.

The reputation for diversity, though, probably will survive. It's not often noted that the neighborhood's diversity has its limits. "In Hyde Park," a resident told me, " 'integration' means white people and black people." The nation's fastest growing ethnic group, Hispanics, is scarcely represented at all; same for Asians. The neighborhood is better known as a haven for the black upper class, especially those who don't want to move to an all-white suburb but also don't want the crime risks and miserable schools associated with the neighborhoods to the immediate south, west, and north. Some of these people are famous--Harold Washington, Chicago's first black mayor, lived in an apartment by the lake, and Muhammad Ali lived down the block from Louis Farrakhan, who lives in Elijah Muhammad's old digs, around the corner from the house of Joe Louis's widow. Most are lawyers and business executives from the Loop, doctors and technicians from the university hospital center, administrators and professors from the university--united to the white upper class through shared politics and aspirations, and delighting in, congratulating one another on, their unique neighborhood.

Hyde Park has always been relatively affluent, but the neighborhood's character was changed forever beginning in the mid-1950s, when university officials orchestrated an ambitious scheme of urban renewal, paid for by the city and federal governments. The project was the first of its kind in Chicago, and one of the first in the country, and it served for a generation as a model for other cities, for better or worse--usually worse. But in Hyde Park urban renewal worked like a Swiss watch.

"You have to understand the mindset," a neighborhood preservationist, Jack Spicer, told me. "In the middle of the 1950s, the university thought they were in the middle of an emergency. Alarms were going off everywhere." All around Hyde Park, white flight was transforming Chicago, goosed by racial panic and the sleazy importunities of "blockbusters"--real estate speculators who bought the houses of fleeing whites at fire-sale prices, then flipped them at a high profit to incoming blacks. "The university figured Hyde Park was next," Spicer said. The school was having trouble attracting students and faculty. Administrators considered moving the campus to Arizona or New Mexico--anywhere pleasant--but balked at the expense. At last they decided that if they couldn't move to a nice neighborhood, they would make their neighborhood nice.

The aim of urban renewal in Hyde Park, according to the university's president, was "to buy, control, and rebuild our neighborhood" until it was a "community of similar tastes and interests." [...]

By Chicago standards, Obama's sweetheart real estate deal with the convicted fixer Tony Rezko--who purchasd the lot next to the house Obama was buying, effectively giving him a bigger yard for free--is almost beneath comment: a cost of doing business or a small professional benefit, typical of machine-backed pols and reformers alike. None of the progressive politicos I spoke with in Hyde Park considered it dismaying--"disappointing," as one oldtimer said, but hardly disqualifying. Most found in Obama instead a mint-perfect expression of their particular brand of politics.

"Barack is perfect for the neighborhood!" Rabbi Arnold Wolf told me, when I stopped by his Hyde Park house one afternoon for a talk. He's as round and white-bearded as Santa, with the same twinkle. He came to Hyde Park before urban renewal and saw its effects firsthand. For 25 years he led the congregation at KAM Isaiah Israel, a synagogue across the street from Obama's mansion. (Recently, the Secret Service contingent has been using its bathrooms.)

"You can't say Barack's a product of Hyde Park. He's not really from here. But everybody saw the potential early on. We had a party for him at our house when he was just starting, back in the Nineties. I said right away: 'Here's a guy who could sell our product, and sell it with splendor!' "

I asked him what the Hyde Park product was.

"People think we're radicals here, wild-eyed!" he said. "Bill Ayers--I know Bill Ayers very well. Bill Ayers is an aging, toothless radical. A pussycat. And his wife, too. I sat on a commission with his wife a few years ago. My god, she was more critical of the left than I was! The two of them, they're utterly conventional people. They had a violent streak at one time. But now--they're thoroughly conventional, just very nice, well-educated people from the neighborhood."

As it happened, I'd spent the evening before reading Ayers's blog, and lingered over a manifesto he posted in early April, after his friendship with Obama became national news. "I've never advocated terrorism," Ayers wrote, "never participated in it, never defended it. The U.S. government, by contrast, does it routinely and defends the use of it in its own cause consistently." Capitalism, he went on, "is exhausted as a force for progress: built on exploitation, theft, conquest, war, and racism, capitalism and imperialism must be defeated and a world revolution--a revolution against war and racism and materialism, a revolution based on human solidarity and love" and so on.

Just another guy in the neighborhood.

But back to the product Obama could sell?

"The thing is, it's not what you might think," Rabbi Wolf said. "It's not radical. It's not extreme. It's a rational, progressive philosophy based on experience. You see it here. This neighborhood is genuinely integrated. We did it here, we really did it! Not just talk about it. Look around. And Barack and his family fit right in. This is their neighborhood."

As he walked me to the door he mused about the urban renewal that created the new Hyde Park. He said he'd always been ambivalent about it.

"Even at the time, you could see the university was saving us, and it was destroying us," he said. "It was keeping us afloat, but it was also taking away the old characteristics, the old buildings, the old trees, the old roots. But it made the neighborhood different, unique. You notice there's no class conflict here."

He twinkled.

"That's because there's only one class--upper!"

The irony would be funny if it weren't so jarring: Black America, after 400 years of enforced second-class status, offers the country a plausible presidential candidate, and what's the charge made against him? He's an elitist.


Segregation by race, bad. Segregation by class, good.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at June 10, 2008 8:08 AM
Comments

Saw this over the weekend, and passed it along to a fellow drop-out. We both agreed that from this description, the place hasn't Changed™ since we were there 30-odd years ago. When Urbanists talk about the wonders of city living and how wonderful it is to have everything within walking distance, they aren't talking about Hyde Park. And it's the place where Barry H. Obama (pbuh) went to establish his Blackness.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at June 10, 2008 8:43 AM

"there's only one class - upper"

That must be why Jeremiah Wright is retiring to a gated community, populated mostly by rich white folk.

And why the shouters at Trinity don't mind footing the bill.

Posted by: ratbert at June 10, 2008 5:01 PM
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