High hopes for native son amid Chicago's decay

Wed, Nov 5, 2008, 00:00

The enthusiasm for Barack Obama was most intense yesterday in the city's south side where he had worked as a community organiser, writes Denis Stauntonin Chicago

THE PUBLIC library in Bronzeville, on Chicago's South Side, stands on a bleak block next to a vacant lot and opposite a vast empty space where public housing has been demolished. Yesterday morning, however, the library was buzzing with activity as a brisk stream of voters came to cast their ballots - almost all of them for local son, Barack Obama.

"He's a native of Chicago and he knows some of the inner-city problems and that needs to be addressed," said Linda Fields, a social worker who took time off work to vote for the Democrat.

"I was a product of public education schools and if it hadn't been for determination, I never would have got my college degree. The public education system didn't do much for me and that truly has to be addressed."

Throughout Chicago, which had its mildest November weather for more than 40 years yesterday, every other pedestrian appeared to be wearing an Obama T-shirt, badge or sticker. Nowhere, however, was the enthusiasm more intense than on the city's south side, where Obama launched his political career as a community organiser working in poor black neighbourhoods.

What Harlem was to New York, Bronzeville was to Chicago in the early 20th century. It was known as the "Black Metropolis" to thousands of African-Americans who moved here from the South during the Great Migration.

The neighbourhood has a rich cultural tradition and Bronzeville was booming until halfway through the last century, when the city built dozens of blocks of public housing here but diverted little investment to the area.

New development in the past decade has brought a partial regeneration to Bronzeville but crime and unemployment remain high in this overwhelmingly black neighbourhood.

"If you don't have an education, if you have a drug history, if you have a criminal record, it's hard to get a job," Fields said. "I think they'll feel they've really got hope now. Because hope is almost about gone for a lot of blacks, especially those in the inner city."

James Jones, a tall, gangly 20-year-old in baggy pants, an oversized shirts and back-to-front baseball cap, is one of Bronzeville's unemployed but he was feeling optimistic yesterday as he cast his vote for Obama.

"I'm hoping things will change, giving a little more money to the poor and the middle class. I just hope stuff change, man. And you're going to see it if he's president," he said.

"You know, man, we never had a black president. It'd be history. He's fresh and we need fresh new images. McCain, I don't know what he's talking about. He's an old, expired dude. Obama's got a fresh image he's bringing to the table." James Davis, a music engineer, said that, as an African-American from Chicago, he was proud of what Obama had achieved and believed his election could lift the fortunes of others in the black community.

"I'm just hoping for a better chance," he said. "Hopefully we'll get paid more at our jobs. Hopefully, more of us will get employed at better places so we can provide for our families."

Pamela Stewart, who works for the Chicago Parks District, is sceptical about politicians and their promises but she thinks Obama could make a difference - and not only for African-Americans.

"He should know just where we come from but it's not so much for us, not one race but all the races. I think he'll do a good job for all of us," she said. "Hopefully, he can keep his word. Hopefully."

For Fields, however, Obama's election would have a special significance to her as an African-American.

"I was just thinking about that as I was driving here. You know, it's something I thought would never take place really, to be honest with you," she said.

"I wish I had been old enough to understand what Martin Luther King was doing. I think I was about nine years old when Martin Luther King died. I see so much of what I've read about him in Barack Obama, there's a true similarity.

"So I think he's basically like a new Martin Luther King and what he stood for, non-violent and he's kept his cool through all the negativity and everything. I was very pleased by his character."