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The President’s Neighborhood

Chicago’s Hyde Park has hosted a world’s fair, nurtured a great university, pioneered urban renewal, and served as both home and crucible for Barack Obama.

(page 2 of 3)

The future president with his barber, Zariff


From another high-rise window—at the aptly named Vista Homes on 58th Street and Stony Island Avenue—Leon Despres gazes out at Jackson Park and across Lake Michigan. Even at 101, Despres has an impressive recall of distant memories, summoning up names and dates on this early spring day. (On May 6th, as Chicago went to press, Leon Despres died in his Hyde Park home.) A lawyer educated at the U. of C., Despres was elected to the city council as an independent representing Hyde Park’s 5th Ward in 1955—the same year Richard J. Daley was elected mayor. “Yes, we came in together,” acknowledges Despres, whose 20-year career on the city council was marked by his fights with the mayor. Daley’s response was to cut off the alderman’s microphone as he addressed the council. “I had to get it out in sound bites,” Despres recalls.


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Hyde Park, in black and white

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Your guide to the President’s neighborhood

“So he’d be yelling without the microphone and Daley would order the sergeant at arms to escort Leon Despres out of City Hall,” recalls Stephen Lyons, a writer and an assistant to the chancellor for communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “That’s Hyde Park. You turn off the microphone, but they’re still going to keep talking, making their point until you haul them out of there.”

In retrospect, the confrontations between Daley and Despres were likely unavoidable, given the alderman’s penchant for reform. In that, he was in tune with the neighborhood’s long-standing reputation for progressive political change, which can be traced to Charles Merriam, a U. of C. professor of political science who served as an alderman in the early 20th century. That independent reform movement was carried on by the likes of the U.S. senator Paul Douglas, a U. of C. economics professor; Charles Merriam’s son, Robert, who served as an alderman and U.S. congressman; and the federal judge (and former U.S. congressman) Abner Mikva, a U. of C. law grad. Their efforts were bolstered by a strong chapter of the Independent Voters of Illinois/ Independent Precinct Organization. “It did help that they were able to elect people to public office who could provide some resources to the social movements that occurred with Hyde Park backing,” observes Dick Simpson, who represented the North Side’s 44th Ward as a reform alderman from 1971 to 1979. (Today Simpson heads up the political science department at the University of Illinois at Chicago.)

Recalling Despres’s tenure in the city council, Simpson is critical of the early black aldermen, who he thinks had been co-opted by the Richard J. Daley Machine. “They wouldn’t even speak up on integration issues or oppose discrimination,” he recalls. Fortunately, the African American community had a strong advocate in Despres, who was white. “He was seen in some periods as the only black alderman in the council,” Simpson says.

As for Despres, racial equality stood near the top of his political agenda. “The main obstacle to improvement of the city was the practice of racial discrimination and segregation,” he says. The Hyde Park–Kenwood neighborhood would serve as a laboratory where, for better and worse, residents would try to resolve some of those problems.

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“People here are pretty regular,” notes Zariff, breaking out the clippers for a newcomer to his barber chair at the stylishly cool Hyde Park Hair Salon. By “regular” he means people who are unpretentious, grounded, and comfortable with themselves. People more interested in making a difference than in gauging the differences between people. They include Carol Moseley Braun, the former U.S. senator and ambassador to New Zealand who used to take her son in for haircuts and simply sit around and wait—just like everybody else. And, most famously, they once included Barack Obama. “You ask him how he is, and he wants to turn it back to you,” says Zariff. “He wants to know how you are. He always wants to know what people are thinking. What they’re talking about.”

Zariff has been cutting Obama’s hair in his shop for about 15 years—that is, until the curiosity seekers got a bit unmanageable. So, on election day, before the victory speech, Zariff cut Obama’s hair at an “undisclosed location,” he says with the discretion of a Washington insider. After he was done, Zariff stuck around Grant Park for a respectful moment. Then he returned to Hyde Park for an election night party at the barbershop, to be with the regulars in a place where the original Obama chair now sits off to the side, surrounded by a bulletproof glass partition—a shrine dedicated to one of the regulars who made good.

Inauguration day in Washington, D.C., was a different matter. “I was right there when he raised his hand,” notes Zariff. “I got choked up and had to say, ‘Wait a minute, get it together. This is just Barack.’ But it wasn’t just Barack.”

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These days, during quieter moments, when there are no victory parties or autograph seekers, when even the regulars give him a break, Zariff likes to gaze through the shop’s glass doors. There is a great deal to reflect on in the beautiful stained glass windows of the church across the street. That would be the United Church of Hyde Park, the church that grew out of the union of the First Presbyterian Church of Hyde Park (the first church formed in the neighborhood, in 1860), the Hyde Park Methodist Church, and the Hyde Park Congregational Church. Paul Cornell, Hyde Park’s founder, was a charter member of both the Presbyterian and the Methodist churches. It should be no surprise that unity is a recurring theme at the neighborhood’s houses of worship.

That’s evident at Congregation Rodfei Zedek, a synagogue on South Hyde Park Boulevard, where worshipers on this Sunday morning are praising Jesus Christ. Pastor Kelvin Easter leads his flock in prayer set against the uplifting strains of the eight-person choir singing reggae and Afro-pop-infused gospel music in the synagogue’s social hall. The willingness of the Rodfei Zedek administration and board to provide its public space in support of an emerging Christian congregation—the Destined to Win Christian Center—was quite significant. “They opened their heart to us and welcomed us with open arms,” says Easter, who wants to find a permanent home for his church in Hyde Park because of the community’s “multiethnic diversity.”

That embrace of diversity has been evident in churches and synagogues across Hyde Park–Kenwood for decades. In April 1956, at the height of the Montgomery bus boycott, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at the U. of C.’s Rockefeller Chapel. He had been invited there by members of the First Unitarian Church of Chicago, just a block away on Woodlawn Avenue, where today banners celebrate Judaism, Islam, Taoism, Buddhism, and Christianity. The church invited Dr. King back in 1966, to meet with gang leaders, and its children’s choir helped harmonize disparate voices. “I think it sort of embodied the Hyde Park ideals,” recalls Audrey Petty, an associate professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who was a member of the choir in the 1970s. “That was more important to me and more central to my life than school ever was.” That ability of the spiritual community to form interracial bonds would help transform Hyde Park–Kenwood in ways that would affect the entire neighborhood.

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Photograph: Chicago Tribune photo by Jose More


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