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Chicago's Hyde Park attracts visitors looking for Obama lore


During the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama's opponents depicted his Chicago neighborhood of Hyde Park as unrepentantly red. Not Republican red, obviously: more "reds under the bed" red, revolutionary red, Che Guevara red. Republican strategist Karl Rove likened Hyde Park to "un-American" parts of America, such as San Francisco and Cambridge, Mass., hotbeds of radical thought, moral relativism and organic vegetables.

Hyde Park is technically part of Chicago, a mere 7 miles south of the Loop. But it seems a world away from the Wrigley Building, Soldier Field and the Art Institute. Hyde Park is like a little college town, with its bookshops and bicycles, tree-lined streets and hipster cafes, overloaded bulletin boards advertising poetry readings and rallies in support of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burmese human rights activist.

But whatever else it may be, nowadays Hyde Park is a place of pilgrimage, with people coming from all over to see the home of America's first African-American president. It's not packed with busloads of schoolkids like Abraham Lincoln's house in Springfield, or a national shrine like Thomas Jefferson's Monticello — not yet, anyway. Still, locals get stopped on the street by tourists asking for directions to the University of Chicago Law School, where Obama taught, or the Baskin-Robbins where the Obamas exchanged their first kiss.

"People ask me where the house is at so they can take a picture. They want to know where he likes to eat and gets his hair cut — all that," said the cab driver who took me there.

Alas, you no longer can take a picture of the Obamas' beaux arts house at 5046 S Greenwood Ave. You can't even see it thanks to concrete barriers and the Secret Service agents who suggest you move along. You can, however, get a trim at the Hyde Park Hair Studio and Barber Shop, order egg whites and bacon at the Valois Cafeteria, and hang out at Obama's favorite bookstore, 57th Street Books.

Just don't expect the residents to turn their tolerant, funky, seriously intellectual enclave into some Obamaland theme park. After all, this is where physicist Enrico Fermi produced the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, where Frank Lloyd Wright designed houses, and where John D. Rockefeller founded one of the world's great universities. Hyde Parkers take high achievers in stride.

Here's a guide to all things Barack Obama in Hyde Park:

57th Street Books 1301 E 57th St.

Even on a cold February morning, this subterranean treasure house is full of students, mothers with pre-kindergartners and members (it's a co-op) coming by to pick up Malcolm Gladwell's latest or the new novel by T.C. Boyle. There are highly literate staff and armchairs for reading undisturbed by the demands of retail. The Obamas love the children's book room. Indeed, there was a rumor the first family would drop by the weekend I was visiting. Tom Flynn, a Hyde Park native and 57th Street Books employee, was a little guarded when asked if he expected them to do some shopping for Malia and Sasha while they were in town for Valentine's Day. "Maybe," he said. "With all the security, well, they can't be normal customers anymore."

The University of Chicago

Standard Oil mogul John D. Rockefeller founded the school in 1891 on land donated by department store owner Marshall Field. Boasting more Nobel Laureates than any university in America, it's fair to say that Chicago ain't a party school. The university's unofficial motto is "Where Fun Goes to Die." The university gave up big-time college football in 1939, preferring to devote its resources to scholarship (UC now plays the likes of Kenyon College in Division III). Walking around the various chapels and libraries, I got the feeling the place was intended to out-Ivy the Ivy League with its gothic-on-steroids buildings. The 1925 Rockefeller Chapel (5850 S Woodlawn Ave.) looks like the love child of Westminster Abbey and the National Cathedral. It's open to the public, and there are frequent free organ concerts.

The Law School 1111 E 60th St.

This, where Obama spent 12 years as a senior lecturer, is a different kettle of architectural fish. Designed by the Finnish modernist Eero Saarinen in 1959, it echoes some of the spikiness of the gothic in glass. Inside the elegant library, you can sink into an orange Saarinen "womb" chair and, like Obama himself, contemplate the U.S. Constitution. Or you can feast your eyes on a life-sized cow sculpture: There are cow sculptures all over Chicago, some plain, some covered in shamrocks or other designs, homage (evidently) to the bovine blamed for kicking over a lantern and starting the great Chicago fire of 1871.

Valois Cafeteria 1518 E 53rd St.

A pilgrim can't live by Obama sites alone, and even the Leader of the Free World likes to eat. The Valois Cafeteria is old-school, down-home and cheap — under $7 for a whole lot of soul food. The Valois is the archetypal Hyde Park eatery, says Tom Flynn of 57th Street Books: "I was raised on that food." It's a place where black and white, town and gown, professional class and working class meet over a plate of grits, ham and biscuits. Flynn recommends Michael Duneier's Slim's Table: "It's a sociological study of the Valois and its regulars. Just make sure you pronounce it 'val-oyse.' You can always tell when somebody's new to Hyde Park: They try to say it the French way."

Pizza Capri 1501 E 53rd St.

The pizzeria is another Obama family favorite, a neighborhood Italian restaurant specializing in Chicago's most famous contribution to American cuisine. "Sure, they come in," said Joe the waiter. He wouldn't reveal Obama's preferred style of pie (though rumor says it's the BBQ-topped pizza). Prices are moderate — $35 will buy dinner for two with a glass of house wine — portions are vast, and everything is fresh. Like the rest of Hyde Park, the place is a model of multiculturalism: At lunchtime it looks like a meeting of the United Nations.

Frank Lloyd Wright

After an artichoke and cheese pizza the size of a truck tire, a walk is in order. Hyde Park is paradise for ogling old houses. The early residents (Hyde Park township was founded in the 1850s) were as eclectic as the population became, building in the Greek Revival style, Colonial, Queen Anne, Craftsman, Haunted Castle, you name it. Frank Lloyd Wright's 1897 Heller House (5132 S Woodlawn Ave., not open to the public) is a weird hybrid of gothic and Italianate. The Robie House (5757 S Woodlawn, open for tours Saturdays,, finished in 1910, is a mature example of the prairie style that made him famous, with its clean lines and open spaces.

More architecture

Grand mansions aren't Hyde Park's only architectural pleasure, though there are plenty the Addams Family would love. Some of the apartment buildings were originally hotels built for the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. Hyde Park has recycled a great deal from that late-Victorian celebration of American wealth and industrial prowess. The Museum of Science and Industry (57th and Lake Shore,, open daily) was built as the Columbian Palace of Fine Arts. Now it houses a German submarine, a collection of vintage jets and a coal mine.

Jackson Park, Washington Park and the Midway Plaisance are also legacies of the World's Fair, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the genius behind New York's Central Park. Midway park now divides the old UC campus from the new, but during the World's Fair, it was the "ethnography" area, with attractions including "primitive" African villages and a supposed "Street of Cairo" with dancers who introduced the "hootchie cootchie" to a nation hungry for sex (it was 1893, after all).

Who could have known that a century later, Hyde Park would introduce Barack Obama, the first African-American president, to a nation voting for change?

Diane Roberts is a professor of English and writing at Florida State University.

Chicago's Hyde Park attracts visitors looking for Obama lore 03/05/09 [Last modified: Thursday, March 5, 2009 10:45am]
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