CHICAGO — In recent elections, residents of the Hyde Park neighborhood of the South Side of Chicago could walk right into Beulah Shoesmith Elementary School to cast their votes. But on Tuesday morning, the line stretched around the block.
This was no ordinary election at Shoesmith Elementary. The Democratic candidate for president — the man who once represented this area as an Illinois state senator — was about to arrive to cast his own ballot.
And when Sen. Barack Obama pulled up at around 7:30 a.m., the small school-turned-polling station was saturated with voters, spectators and reporters. It took Obama at least 15 minutes to fill out his ballot, breaking to look and smile at his daughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, who were in the booth with him.
“They were all smiles about helping their dad vote — for their dad,” said one 76-year-old Hyde Park resident who came to watch.
Many of the voters interviewed said they never thought they would see a black president in their lifetimes, much less the young Harvard Law graduate who first moved into their neighborhood as a community organizer in 1992. Many of them, like 26-year resident Debora Hammond, have voted for him for every office he has ever sought.
But they never imagined he would one day be their president.
Obama’s meteoric rise from local prominence to the nation’s top job in the span of just five years completes one of the most stunning political success stories in recent memory. But to the neighbors who have been there since the beginning, Obama has held dear the same progressive values and open-minded approach he was known for during his days in Hyde Park.
A local, a regular
When Obama made Hyde Park his home, moving into a handsome brick apartment on Harper Street, he had neither a family nor a lot of money, recalls Spiro Argiris, the owner of the Valois Cafeteria a block away.
Obama became a regular at Argiris’s lunch counter; after all, it was quick and cheap. But even after he made money and started a family, he returned, bringing the girls for breakfast on weekends. He would stop and say hello to everyone he knew, Argiris said.
Could he have guessed this man would be president some day? No way, Argiris said. All he could tell was that Obama was a smart guy. Argiris knew Obama was going places, but he never expected the White House.
“A lot of smart people, the way they talk, they push you down,”Argiris said, speaking as if with paternal pride. “The way he talked to you, he pushed you up.”
Valois is a Hyde Park tradition — a watering hole for neighbors of all strata. There are suited bankers, uniformed cops, plainclothes detectives, sport-coated professors, uniformed plumbers, full families and lone old-timers. The mix reflects the neighborhood it anchors.
“Any color, any education, very rich, very poor, high education, low education — you find on these 10 blocks,” Argiris said of the neighborhood.
Such diversity of backgrounds and experiences have molded Obama’s public identity. From a biracial and international background, Obama chose this melting pot of a neighborhood to settle and launch his political career. That still defines how his neighbors see him, and how much of the country at large has come to see him as well. Diners interviewed said Obama’s humble beginnings give him a common touch that colors his politics.
On Tuesday, the diners in Valois haven’t seen Obama around, but he’s on all of their minds and lips. David Forward said Obama’s biracial heritage and experiences hanging around a place like Valois helps him see multiple perspectives. That’s exactly what the country needs now, he said.
“The America I grew up in, I never thought it would happen in my lifetime,” he said.
‘Change is sometimes good’
Hyde Park is a leafy neighborhood whose proud self-image rests on ideals of integration, tolerance and economic diversity, said Katie Buitrago, a senior at the University of Chicago. And Obama embodies that ethos, said voter Anita Orlikoff.
Obama’s time in Chicago gave him the skills that would eventually take him to Washington, said John Hall, who lives across the street from Shoesmith Elementary.
“His work on the South Side as a community organizer really honed his ability to work with people,” he said.
Local residents interviewed said Obama’s experiences in Hyde Park directly influenced many of the fundamental tenets of his campaign — a commitment to bipartisanship, a willingness to negotiate with other countries and a focus on the middle class are all extensions of Hyde Park dynamics, they said.
To 20-year Hyde Park resident Ron Sorrells, Obama was just a neighbor and local politician, someone he would say hello to in the grocery store. He never imagined him as something more, largely because of Obama’s inexperience and race, he said.
Being black and 47, Obama redefined the image of what a president can be, Sorrells said. In doing so, he has redefined what America can be.
“Obama as an individual is a symbol of a different trend in our society,” he said. “It’s a change of tone that’s indicative of society as a whole. That a black man can secure the Democratic nomination is in itself historic.”
Just five years ago, the 44th president was a nobody. Claretta Schluter said she hardly knew of him even when he was her state senator. South Side native and Northwestern University alumna Tiffany Grimes said she remembers seeing lawn signs on Northwestern’s campus for Obama’s 2004 run for U.S. Senate.
She remembered thinking, “Obama who?”
Stephanie Dawson, a black woman who has lived in Hyde Park for over 30 years, said she was impressed by Obama when he was campaigning for state senate, but she never believed he would make it to the Oval Office. That he could (and did) has inspired her 12-year-old son, she said.
His teachers always told him, in America, anyone can be president. Now he can actually believe them.
“Change is sometimes good,” she said, holding back tears.
Because Obama shares so much in common with the Hyde Park community, support for him here is palapable, said Rev. Larry Turpin of the United Church of Hyde Park. They have faith he will be a champion for the change they desperately seek, he said.
Storefronts of nail salons, liquor stores and African hair braiding shops along 53rd St. displayed signs and merchandise reading “Obama for Change” and “Yes We Can.”
“This is really ground zero for everything that Obama stands for,” Tarpin said.