WE drove up to Obama’s house the other night, or as far as you can get to it. Some guidebooks now list it as a place to see on a trip to Chicago, but security are watching the house at all times, even though you could count the number of nights he has slept there in 2012 on one hand, and like Downing Street you can’t drive down the street.
The location is interesting. It is in the city’s Hyde Park neighbourhood, one of only a few neighbourhoods in Chicago where, to put it bluntly, whites and blacks live side by side. The rest of the city is unofficially segregated. In the south of the city, we drove for several miles, through some quite desolate areas of failed shops and empty homes, without seeing a white face. You could do the same in reverse on the northside. London has areas where people sharing the same ethnic and cultural backgrounds cluster, but not as rigidly this.
Other neighbourhoods have been noticably gentrified, but not with much racial integration. Black families have simply been moved along by rising rents.
The potential irony is that if anybody in the city thought the election of a black president would swiftly change Chicago’s uneasy double life, it seems it was more likely the idealist, hipsters on the northside. Maybe some were complacent that having Obama in the White House would be an overnight cure, but the shootings and the poverty didn’t diminish.
On the south, there may be pride that America elected a black president and moreover that he came from this city, but there’s a day-to-day realism that this symbolic shift was never really going to instantly change their lives. Obamacare health reform is probably the one flag to wave here.
In areas like Englewood, the scene of many gun murders and where gang members are prepared to shoot back at the police, a drive around is like a street scene from The Wire, as cliched as that may sound. Men huddle and hustle on street corners.
Not much has changed here in four years of Obama. Four years ago, this is where singer Jennifer Hudson’s brother and mother were shot dead. Horrified northsiders dare not venture down there, just as they wouldn’t have four years ago. Perhaps, there are blind eyes and ostrich heads in the sand. The north of the city is a lovely place to be. It would be uncomfortable for its residents to think too much about what’s happening south of the White Sox stadium.
Chicago will always vote Democrat, but a black president from Hyde Park could not solve the entrenched divisions which the tourists on Navy Pier, a boat on Lake Michigan or sight-seeing from the Willis tower do not see. That task is immense.