Chicago's diverse Hyde Park hopes for win

Other News Materials 4 November 2008 09:00 (UTC +04:00)

In Chicago's Hyde Park district, Barack Obama is more than a candidate for president: he's "just a nice guy" who stops to say hello at local sporting events or who gets his hair cut at the same neighbourhood barber, dpa reported.

It's a diverse, left-leaning enclave, home to both white and black affluent professionals, and surrounded by working class and poor minority neighbourhoods on Chicago's South Side, with overwhelming support for their favourite son, the Democratic presidential nominee.

"We're in the middle of Obamaland," said Elizabeth Lee, a 19-year- old biochemistry student at the University of Chicago, a lush, gothic campus known for its intellectual vigour, where Obama served as a professor in the nationally known law school from 1992-2004.

Bidding to become the first African-American president, Obama was the strong favourite heading into Tuesday's vote. An aggregate of major national polls, compiled by realclearpolitics.com, gave Obama 51.2 per cent to Republican candidate John McCain's 44.2 per cent on the eve of the election.

But the state-by-state, winner-takes-all US system, presidential campaigns focus on key battleground states, and McCain still hopes to pull off an upset victory by winning in states like Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Hyde Park's mix of elite academics, family businesses and influential residents - including Nation of Islam sect leader Louis Farrakahn - may be very different from most of the country. But that diversity has been a springboard for Obama throughout his political career: he launched his run for the Illinois State Senate from Hyde Park and mined his connections there to raising campaign money from the city's wealthy political patrons.

Early in his career, he was bashed by a Democratic rival as an elitist because of his Hyde Park roots, and conservative critics have lately taken him to task for his connection to neighbour Bill Ayers, who in 1969 helped found the radical group known as the Weather Underground, which attacked federal buildings in Washington to protest the Vietnam War. Ayers, who escaped conviction, is now a professor at another local university.

McCain's vice presidential running mate, Sarah Palin, called Ayers a "domestic terrorist."

Hyde Park is not just home to wealthy liberals. In fact, one-sixth of its residents live in poverty, and a short ride on Chicago's iconic elevated train leads into rougher neighbourhoods, like those where Obama got his start as a community organizer in the 1980s.

The mix of businesses along 53rd Street, just blocks from Obama's home, reflects the economic and social diversity, with laundromats and check-cashing stores alongside soul food restaurants, sushi and Starbucks.

The enclave voted by a ratio of 19 to 1 for John Kerry over President George W Bush in 2004, and its residents plan to head to the polls in droves to support their neighbour.

Obama's 1.65-million-dollar brick home on 50th Street is spacious but hardly palatial by Hyde Park standards. If weren't for the police barricades and handful of foreign television reporters across the street, it could be easily overlooked. But since Obama, who bought the house nearly four years ago, became the most famous person on the block, police won't allow even pedestrians to walk past unless they have legitimate business in the area.

At an apartment building around the block, Jacqueline Lewis, 42, recalls seeing Obama in the neighbourhood and calls him "an intelligent, articulate, compassionate person." Like many of her neighbours she plans to stay up all night to watch the election returns.

Though many of the area's residents are African-American, many people here said they tend to see Obama not primarily as a black candidate but rather as the bearer of opportunity: to improve the nation's faltering economy and restore the US image after eight years of Bush.

"It's great that he's black," said Lewis. "But you know, I would like him if he was green."

Sharon Carney, who runs her own office cleaning business in the area, said she believes Obama's economic policies are fair and cites his promise to allow people to tap into their tax-exempt retirement savings to make it through tough times as necessary given the current downturn.

"Still," she said, "it'll take more than just his four or eight years in office" to fix the country.