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The Improbable Journey of Barack Obama

November 6, 2008

Chicago, Illinois – The improbable political journey of Barack Obama, son of a man from Kenya and a woman from Kansas, began in the far South Side of Chicago, in the mid-1980s. Obama came to Altgeld Garden from New York City to work as a community organizer – a fact the junior Senator from Illinois often liked to quote during his long presidential campaign. In this forgotten project ridden with unemployment and crime, he helped set up a job training program and a tenants’ rights organization.

Altgeld Garden comprises a few blocks of modest single-family homes and low-rise apartment buildings at the southern edge of Chicago, a public housing development stuck on the side of Bishop Ford Freeway. A solitary enclave separated from the rest of the city by Lake Calumet to the East, railway tracks to the North, and major thoroughfares all around, Altgeld Garden remains a place where outsiders don’t like to visit and even the police rarely ventures into. “We haven’t seen a taxi here in thirty years,” said resident Derrick White pointing to the few yellow cabs parked on East 131st Street on Election Day. Those taxis drove here curious journalists – most of them foreign and the only non-African Americans around.

Despite high unemployment, health issues related to air pollution caused by industries nearby, and another automobile plant — a Ford factory — soon to shut down, on Election Day the mood in Altgeld Garden was joyful. A burgundy-colored Toyota SUV parked by the curb played loud hip-hop music as a group of young people chatted loudly about the election, looking almost like they were waiting for “one of their own” to be elected President of the United States.

Mr. White, a man in his forties wearing black sweat pants an old white t-shirt and a black bandana on his head, works as a custodian at a nearby high school and is active in the local chapter of the Service Employees International Union.

He remembers Obama only after Obama’s campaign for the U.S. Senate of 2004, during which White worked the polls for him. Surprisingly, many residents here don’t seem to recall much of the years when Obama was a member of the Illinois Legislature, let alone the Senator’s history prior to that. “I thought from the start that he was a very intelligent man,” White claimed, “but I didn’t think he was going to come this far this quickly.” He hopes that President Obama will fix the economy and heal the racial wounds that have plagued this country since its founding: “There are no jobs here, people don’t have health-care. You should go to the county hospital, they started charging for service,” he explained.

White’s only fear is that history will repeat itself once again and that the President-elect “will be assassinated.”

Many people in this neighborhood share the same morbid notion. “I’m telling you, he won’t make it through the four years, he will be assassinated,” declared a positively convinced Michael Johnson. Mr. Johnson, who works as a forklift operator, believes that people here need more and better role models; successful people that can inspire them. Most importantly, residents at Altgeld Garden need jobs: “Big companies must come and employ locals,” he argued. Pointing to the silhouettes of cranes sprawling up in the distance, Mr. Johnson maintained: “99.9% of those employed out there don’t live in this neighborhood. We need to keep more money here where it’s needed.”

Barack Obama’s northward journey through Chicago – from Altgeld Garden, where his career began, to Grant Park, where he was crowned Wednesday night – mimics his quick rise to the top of the national political scene. He left the all-black and un-inviting projects at the very far South Side of Chicago in 1988, to attend Harvard University Law School in Boston.

When he returned to the city in the summer of 1989 to practice as an associate at the firm of Sidley & Austin, Obama had to become acquainted with a place known as South Shore. It was there that his then wife-to-be Michelle Robison had grown up. In many ways, Michelle represented Barack’s second stop in the geographical line of upward mobility typical of African American Chicagoans. Unlike Altgeld Garden, South Shore is a working class, mixed-income neighborhood, although still predominantly African-American. It is north of the projects and closer to the business district and the chic stores of downtown.

East 67th Street is lined with redbrick mid-rise apartment buildings overlooking Jackson Park — leaves of many colors fall from the trees onto the grass.

These few blocks of quiet and well-kept streets, proper although not upscale, are enclosed between South Stony Island Boulevard, dotted with gas stations and chain restaurants, and Lake Michigan. From the lakefront one can see the fancy high-rises of Michigan Avenue in the distance.

Doris Beard Wollman is a resident of Senior Suites, a subsidized apartment building for citizens sixty-two and over. On Election Day Senior Suites is also one of the designated polling places in South Shore. Ms. Wollman, a nurse who was put on disability and Medicaid after surviving a heart attack, is outside, enjoying the blue sky and the warm weather. Here too most people, Ms. Wollman included, remember Barack Obama only since his 2004 U.S. Senate bid: “I was impressed by how dynamic he was,” Wollman recalled, explaining that she immediately felt that the young State Senator was a star on the rising. “I remember when Martin Luther King said ‘One day.’ When I saw Obama speaking, I believed,” said Ms. Wollman. She maintained, however, that she chose Obama over Hillary Clinton in the primaries based on foreign policy considerations: “I felt that so many countries hated America and I thought that they would be more receptive of a person of color, especially in the Middle East.”

Someone who remembers Barack Obama since the very beginning of his Chicago political career is Yesse Yehudah, who ran against the President-elect in the 1998 elections for the Illinois Senate. Mr. Yehudah, who then drew only a 10% of the vote, is a lone African American republican amidst the stream of democrats entering and leaving the Senior Suites polling station. Yehudah declined to say whom he voted for this year, although he professed allegiance to the GOP. “I think Obama is a quality guy. I also think that God had more to do with his success than Obama himself. We’re at such a low point in the history of the United States and in the history of racial relationships, it seems like the country needed Obama,” Yehudah said. In his words, he is a republican because he is closer to the GOP on issues such as business development and family values. Yehudah also believes that the African American community, like the rest of the United States, needs a “two-party system and that it is not beneficial to anybody that blacks only vote Democratic.” However, he admits to being displeased with the direction taken lately by the Republican Party. He doesn’t like how “republicans set themselves up to be stereotyped as an all-white, anti-minority party, which they are not.”

Barack Obama’s final stop along the Chicago lakefront was Hyde Park. This is a much more affluent neighborhood situated around the University of Chicago, home to a long list of Nobel Prize laureates and where the President-elect taught Constitutional law for many years. Young African-American professionals reside here and work at the University or commute downtown, which is just north of here. Fancier high-rise condominiums sprawl up on larger residential streets with a view of Lake Michigan. Lovely single-family homes overlook the sports fields of the local public schools. On Election Day the Obamas voted in one of them; Shoesmith Elementary.

Ramona Storall is waiting in the school courtyard for her husband to cast his ballot. She is a forty-two year old police officer on maternity leave and she just finished voting for Obama. “As soon as we heard him speak, many years ago, we knew he was going to be a Presidential candidate. With my husband we joked about Obama 08 from the start,” said Storall. She hopes that President Obama will focus on the economy without forgetting the war: “I have many family members who serve in the military.” Rising gas prices hit her family budget the worst. Storall’s parents live in a suburb away from this neighborhood but it has become impossible to visit them as often as she used to: “We also had to downsize to using just one car out of the two we own,” Storall explained.

While she heads back home, a poll judge leaves the school for a short lunch break. Sandra Young has been handing out ballots to voters the whole morning. She was one of a large number of people who voted early for Obama. Young actually worked with the President-elect in 1993-1994 on the IBA Walles Housing Development. Mr. Obama was training people, among them Young, on programs to help families moving from welfare to work. “I hope that, as President, he keeps his word. I know that things are not going to happen overnight, but our people need jobs,” she concludes.

Finally, it was Grant Park — Chicago’s front yard — that witnessed the apex of Barack Obama’s political ascent. On Wednesday night, with the luxuriously lit downtown skyline as a backdrop, the President-elect drew an adoring crowd of over 200,000. Whites, blacks, rich, poor, young and old, gathered to celebrate his victory in the 2008 elections. “This is a good day, it’s the proudest day of my life as an American,” screamed Ray Krouze, a thirty-five year-old Chicago attorney.

“I feel fantastic, this is great for the USA and for the whole world,” echoed fifty-two year-old teacher Sharon Davis. Cat Brunson, a middle-age woman and a microbiologist, is “exhausted but elated.” She and her husband stood in line at the gates of Grant Park since 4:30pm on Wednesday afternoon to see Obama speak.

While Chicago celebrated in Grant Park, an entire nation cheered in front of television screens, in hotel ballrooms and in the streets. For a man with a middle name like Hussein who grew up between Indonesia and Hawaii, this was quite the improbable journey. “For the generation of the baby boomers who experienced the 1960s, the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Reverend Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, this is the most exiting election in over forty years,” argued Evan Brandstadter, a retired Professor who taught American History at Cornell University in New York. Nevertheless, this Chicago resident worries that the expectations for President Obama has already been set so high that it will be all too easy for him to disappoint them. The metaphor Brandstadter uses to explain his concern is inspired by the 1967 movie The Graduate. Just to recount, the film ends when the protagonist Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) successfully pulls away his love Elaine Robison (Katharine Ross) from the altar where she is about to marry another man. The two elope on a bus, escaping the rage of relatives and friends. Once the engine begins to run, Ben and Elaine look at each other in growing disbelief. “Right at that moment,” explained Brandstadter, “when all the enthusiasm and the excitement are finally over, only one big question remains: and now what?”

Originally reported and written for Washington Prism

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