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Chicago Urbanism

Obama’s House

by Michael R. Allen

Photograph by Katherine Hodges.

Illinois Senator Barack Obama will soon be living in a famous historic home, and for that we are thankful, but his current residence is not unremarkable. Famously an owner of only one house, Obama resides in a spacious, historic home in Chicago’s Kenwood neighborhood. The hipped-roof Colonial Revival home and adjacent lot — regrettably made infamous during the campaign — are found on a block familiar to millions of urban Americans.

While we all don’t live in homes as large as Obama’s or in neighborhoods as tony as Obama’s pocket of Kenwood Kenwood, us city-dwellers can see ourselves in Obama more so than in any president in our lifetimes. Obama lives in a red brick house close to the sidewalk on a public street in a densely-populated neighborhood. Near the Obama family home is Washington Park, a magnificent but somewhat-untended city park. Washington Park mixes the aesthetics of Gilded Age aspiration with the contemporary reality of human life. Its paths are mostly full of people enjoying the beauty, but it has its share of vice and crime. West of the park is the CTA’s Green Line, an elevated train line that carries thousands of Chicagoans to work, school church and nightlife.

To the south, Hyde Park and the University of Chicago place academic refinement smack-dab against neighborhoods where poverty is a real problem. North of Kenwood are neighborhoods whose fortunes are equally mixed. Barack Obama bought a wonderful home for his family, surrounded by the urban reality of his city. Obama’s life is sheltered by necessity, but not by location. His home is in the middle of the diversity, wonder, agony and mystery of American urban life — “real America” to many Americans. At times, cities seem to be as real as it gets.

Many American presidents — including Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton — have relocated to New York City at points in their career, but none in the last fifty years have come straight out of an urban neighborhood to the White House. These past fifty years have been terrible years for American cities. Seems like little coincidence that we have had presidents who come from that ether between the real life of the cities and the real life of the rural areas — one place widely defamed by national politicians, the other mythologized in speech and neglected by policy.

Barack Obama has walked streets like ours and lived in a red brick house in the city. He has called an urban neighborhood in south Chicago home. At last, America has an urban president. At times, Obama will displease urban Americans — after all, he is governing a nation with a suburban culture that is entrenched in national government. Yet Obama has actually lived urban America, and I can’t help but think that will make a crucial difference in transportation policy, housing allocation, block grant funding and other areas.

Of course, Obama holds only the pen that signs the laws. The laws originate with our representatives. We have an urban president, and to make the most of that, urban America needs to step up and make its voice heard. Change doesn’t end with Obama, it starts with us.

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