Barack Obama in Chicago Forensics on the Southside

If Barack Obama becomes the next president of the United States he will not only be the first Afro-American to lead the country. Obama will also be the first president who has taken a deep look at those who live on the downside of American society. As community organizer on Chicago’s infamous Southside for more than three years Obama dealt with the hard facts of life. Forensics where it all began.
  • by Markus Ziener
Presidential hopeful Barack Obama in Chicago. Photo: ap

Presidential hopeful Barack Obama in Chicago. Photo: ap

CHICAGO. He who finds nothing else lands here: Altgeld Gardens, 20 miles south of elegant downtown Chicago, in the middle of the notorious Southside - a housing project for those who cannot pay more than 50 dollars a month for rent. Altgeld Gardens is grey and dismal – and dangerous. Every time the temperature increases, the level of crime explodes. Then drugs, brawls, drive-by shootings, robbery and death skyrocket.

Barack Obama plunges into this reality when he moves to Chicago in 1985 as a recent university graduate. And the experiences from Altgeld, from the Southside, shape him as a person. Wherever the Democratic presidential candidate has made speeches in the last months, he has spoken of his time as “Community Organizer”, and the fact that he has seen America from a very different perspective than most other contenders: from below. If Obama wins the votes on November 4th, not only would the first African-American move into the White House. For the first time in a long time, a politician would become President of the USA who knows the hardships of the simple life – and the tricks to stay afloat in a city like Chicago.

However: Obama could do little to change these realities. “I have great appreciation for what he did here”, says Cheryl Johnson of Obama. “But the problems have remained”. The 47-year-old black woman works in the environmental organization “People for Community Recovery”. She has her desk in exactly the same barrack in which Barack Obama took on his job years ago. What Cheryl does, she does for herself. Cheryl does not earn one single dollar, she does not even get a free lunch. Every day she sits for hours at the telephone and in front of the computer because her mother, Hazel, did so and because it is important to her. When the neighbors come to her with their problems, she tries to help. Then they might write a letter together to an agency in Chicago or look for a telephone number. And sometimes they grumble about the injustices of life. But what Hazel and Cheryl Johnson have created with their small NGO are a couple square meters of normalcy in the middle of daily insanity.

One can see this lunacy as soon as he goes outside. The words „Noone’s Laundromat“ are written on a house a few steps away. At some point the lettering must have been a bold blue. Now it has evaporated into pale blue or white. The shutters are drawn over the front door to the Laundromat. Next to the barrack there are teenagers in the half-shade. They sit and watch. They watch an empty parking lot, an abandoned supermarket that was once called “Garden Food Place” and the administrative building of Altgeld Gardens.

It is reddish-brown and one can read that it was built in 1944. 1944: The War in Europe was to end soon and room had to be made for the returning soldiers. So Altgeld Gardens was enlarged for the GIs – blacks without exception. Previously, apartments were built there for low-wage workers from the surrounding factories. The site could not look worse: Nearby there are a garbage dump, a stinking sewage system and a paint shop. When Obama came to Altgeld in the mid-80s, his job was to make sure that toilets were repaired, that the heat worked and that broken window panes were replaced. In Altgeld, where there were never enough jobs and where today the unemployment rate is at 86 percent, the community worker, Obama, saw the other side of American society.

Jerry Kellman, a white social worker in Chicago, had hired him as director for the Developing Communities Project (DCP) back then. This was a job in which he was responsible for eight municipalities in the south of Chicago and initially earned only 13,000 dollars annually. Kellman looked desperately for reinforcement in Chicago – and Obama found increasingly fewer friends in his work as reporter for a New York commercial newspaper. The 23-year-old was looking for his roots and entertained the idea of becoming a writer, but also wanted to experience “black America”. He read Kellman’s ad and replied – and Jerry Kellman traveled to New York to meet Barack Obama in a coffee shop in Midtown Manhattan. The prospect itself of moving to Chicago fascinated Obama, but there was also another reason: Two years earlier, Harold Washington had become the first black politician to occupy the office of Mayor. Obama wanted to be there for this new development.

„When Obama came here to Chicago he was quite idealistic“, remembers Kellman today. “When he left he was pragmatic”. Indeed, Obama experienced his first real contact with black reality in the USA on the Southside. “He developed his black identity here”, says Kellman. In Hawaii, Indonesia, Los Angeles and New York, Obama led the life of a white man. “At the university he found the international students especially interesting”, says Kellman. He found out what it meant to be black in the USA during his time in Chicago. “He was too young to have consciously experienced the Civil Rights Movement – and nowhere could he be closer to it than here”.

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