Election 2008

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Jerry Lai/AP
The Hyde Park residence of President-elect Barack Obama.

Hyde Park: A Love Affair with Obama’s Neighborhood

November 24, 2008
by Anne Szustek
Hyde Park is the Chicago South Side neighborhood that serves as home to the University of Chicago, an institution whose student body proudly sells T-shirts festooned with an unofficial school motto: “Where Fun Comes to Die.” Someone else calls the neighborhood home, too—President-elect Barack Obama—and thanks to him, Hyde Park has become America’s address of the moment.

Hyde Park: Not Just a College Neighborhood

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In October, The Washington Post published a piece entitled “Uncommon Ground,” a paean to the neighborhood’s unquestionable diversity of race, ethnic backgrounds, socioeconomic brackets and political viewpoints.

The Post article’s author, Peter Slevin, vividly depicts the eccentricities of this urban enclave. In particular, he picked up on a neighborhood nuance: residents are more likely to call themselves Hyde Parkers than Chicagoans.

Since 1992, Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., has represented the district that includes Hyde Park in Congress. In addition to his political career, other roles Rush has played during his 62 years include Baptist minister and cofounder of the Illinois Black Panther Party. Meanwhile, the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, Rev. Jesse Jackson’s political activist organization, has its headquarters seven blocks north of the University of Chicago’s main quadrangles.

Hyde Parkers Know Left from Right

While Hyde Park residents are located all over the political spectrum, the community as a whole tends to vote Democrat. Some outsiders have been quick to paint the neighborhood as a hotbed of liberal elitism. The Washington Post cited Karl Rove’s attempt to label Hyde Park, along with San Francisco and Cambridge, Mass., “a triad of leftist tomfoolery.”

With regard to the “elitist” part, Hyde Park’s median income is $45,000—lower than that of both the city of Chicago and the United States.

Thomas Frank, a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, concedes that many of Hyde Park’s denizens are law and economics professors, and so arguably might be out of touch with blue-collar America. However, while elitists they may be, they’re hardly liberal; in fact, they’re the source of the theories upon which modern conservatism is based.
The University of Chicago, and by extension Hyde Park, is home to the “Chicago School” of economics, a phrase synonymous with neoclassicism. For anyone whose knowledge of economics is rusty, here’s the punch line: Chicago economics says, “the free market is a good thing.”

The Chicago Theological Seminary, located adjacent to campus, is being taken over by the Milton Friedman Institute, named for the former University of Chicago professor Frank calls “the greatest free-market evangelist of them all.”

As for the Law School, where Obama is on the faculty as a senior lecturer, the prevailing message (often accompanied by a wagging finger) is, “Don’t you dare legislate from the bench!” Or at least, that’s what former U of C Law academic and current Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia would say.

Balance Scales vs. Balance Sheets

Essentially, the neighborhood embraces theory, sometimes over practice. Case in point: the erstwhile Hyde Park Co-op Grocery Store, whose tagline was “A Love Affair with Wonderful Food.” Founded in 1933 during the throes of the Great Depression, its mantra during its 75 years of business was that community partnership would prevail over competition. Business decisions were made during town hall meetings rather than in board rooms. Members of the Co-op received dividend checks of the store’s profits.

It did manage to be the only grocery store chain in Hyde Park. But its move to lease a new location in a gentrifying part of the neighborhood trapped the store in millions of dollars in debt.

In addition, many thought the store’s selection of perishables was less than garden crisp. On more than one occasion, the U of C students and faculty likened the meat quality to that available in a developing country.

The Hyde Park Co-op Grocery Store chain shuttered its doors for good in January, ending that “love affair.” Yet Hyde Park’s marriage with idealism remains intact.
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