For Many on Chicago’s South Side, Obama’s Farewell Will Be Personal

The chair President Obama used to sit in to get his hair cut at the Hyde Park Hair Salon. An Obama cut, at $24, remains popular. Credit David Kasnic for The New York Times

CHICAGO — If the metal barricades, “Do Not Enter” signs and lurking Secret Service agents were a bother the past eight years in the Hyde Park-Kenwood area — the South Side neighborhood where President Obama still owns a house, but rarely has been home — residents are not complaining.

“All that’s been fine, really. You get used to it,” said Adela Cepeda, who like many people on Mr. Obama’s block of Greenwood Avenue met him before he was president, or a senator, or elected to anything at all. “To me, it’s just too bad his time will be over. This has been fabulous for Chicago in a certain way. I think that all things being equal, we came first. But I guess all good things must end.”

As Mr. Obama prepared to give his farewell address on Tuesday from McCormick Place, the cavernous convention center beside Lake Michigan, people in his hometown sounded by turns possessive, proud, anxious and wistful. With his election in 2008, this city — and its heavily African-American South Side in particular — had suddenly been thrust to the forefront of the national political conversation. And so early Saturday, in temperatures barely above zero, thousands waited outside for the chance to receive free tickets to witness the end of that story. By Sunday, tickets were being hawked online for as much as $5,000.

Near the Obamas’ red brick Georgian, not far from the University of Chicago, some wondered gloomily whether his legacy might now be erased by his successor, Donald J. Trump, who received just 12 percent of the vote in Chicago and only single-digit slivers in the wards near Mr. Obama’s house.

Would Chicago’s spin in the spotlight, complicated as it had been at times, be over now, too?

“I guess I feel sad,” said Antonio Coye, a barber at the Hyde Park Hair Salon, where the plain black chair Mr. Obama used to sit in for his trims is now preserved under glass. Not long ago, a crew of Lycra-clad bicyclists peered at the chair from the foyer of the small shop, where a line of men forms on Saturdays and “the Obama cut,” a professional-looking taper on the side and the back for $24, remains popular.

Icelia Crouse and her sister Stephanie inside of Valois, a restaurant in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood that President Obama used to frequent. Credit David Kasnic for The New York Times

“This was really something unique that happened,” Mr. Coye said as he worked on a customer with a razor over the weekend. “It was the first time somebody really different became president, and he did a really good job. To me, the person in office after him is going to make his time in office stand out even more than it did already.”

Full-size tour buses, once an oddity, cruise down Hyde Park Boulevard with some frequency now. People can occasionally be seen pulling over with cameras outside a nondescript shopping center along 53rd Street, where an easy-to-overlook plaque notes the Obamas’ first date, during which Barack Obama bought Michelle Robinson ice cream from a Baskin-Robbins shop that has since become a Subway.

For a place that has not forgotten being called the Second City by a New Yorker writer long ago, Chicago had watched its standing, in the eyes of the coasts, rise along with Mr. Obama’s. Chicagoans were entrusted with important posts in Washington, and many of them, along with the first family, had roots on the South Side, rather than on the richer and whiter North Side.

At points during the eight-year term, Chicago voices seemed to be everywhere. Both Valerie Jarrett and David Axelrod, who is now back in Hyde Park at the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago, were senior advisers. Chicago cabinet members included Arne Duncan (education) and Penny Pritzker (commerce). Austan Goolsbee, another Hyde Parker, was an economic adviser, and Desirée Rogers was an early White House social secretary. And Mr. Obama’s first-term chiefs of staff included William M. Daley, the brother of Chicago’s former mayor, and Rahm Emanuel, who was later elected mayor.

But it is not just the shutting of that pipeline that causes concern. In Mr. Obama’s old neighborhood, the notion that Mr. Trump was soon to step in left some speaking of the president’s farewell speech in terms more akin to a funeral than a celebration.

Many recalled watching an ebullient re-election evening here in 2012, when President Obama appeared at McCormick Place — a bookend, it now seems, to Tuesday night. Others recounted how they had felt as they watched his 2008 victory from Grant Park, the city’s downtown front yard along the lake, where he addressed thousands with the gleaming Chicago skyline as a backdrop.

A plaque noting the Obamas’ first date, at a former Baskin-Robbins on 53rd Street in Chicago. Credit David Kasnic for The New York Times

“It was a magical moment — such a positive buzz all around,” said Kevin Elliott, a manager at 57th Street Books, an underground maze where Mr. Obama had held book signings and often visited before his election.

Even here, though, a few have questioned whether Mr. Obama did as much as he could during his time in office to solve urban problems of gang violence, joblessness and segregation. In Chicago, violence cascaded last year: More people, 762, were murdered in the president’s hometown in 2016 than in New York and Los Angeles combined. Some complained that Mr. Obama had not interceded forcefully enough.

“He was a community organizer here himself, and he should be embarrassed that he came in as president and the problems have actually worsened,” said Ja’Mal Green, a local activist.

But others, like Mr. Coye, the barber, noted that Mr. Obama was president of the United States, not of the South Side: “Who knows what happens now, but you can’t have expected him to solve this city’s violence.”

The Obamas intend to stay in Washington while their younger daughter finishes high school, but many residents here believe that they might never return to the house on Greenwood Avenue. He is building his presidential library in Chicago, many say, and that is just fine.

“No, he’s not coming back, and he shouldn’t, either — he couldn’t go anywhere without being recognized,” said Stephanie Crouse, 53, a school bus driver eating her lunch from a tray at Valois, a Hyde Park cafeteria Mr. Obama once frequented.

“This is like your kids,” she added. “He’s done his thing. He did what he could. And you’re sending him off now to graduate and move up and go off to better things.”

Source: NYTimes