THE BLOG
12/18/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

An Obama Boom in Hyde Park?

Or, When The World Comes to Hyde Park ( ... and Then Goes Downtown For Dinner)

The week or so before and after the general election were, for this blogger, framed by the following encounters, in the order of their increasingly surreal occurrence:

1) A conversation with two Jehovah's Witnesses, within sight of Fort Obama, but canvassing for a higher power, who wanted to know what I thought of the Hudson homicide case. This was followed shortly thereafter by --

2) An interview with Fuji-TV, in which my dog and I were taped by a very attractive Japanese reporter while being asked what it felt like to be "at the center of the world"; which was then followed by --

3) A Belgian photographer for the Parisian daily Le Monde, who asked if he could photograph my son as burrowed into a pile of leaves, and then shocked me by saying nice things about America with a French accent; and, most recently --

4) Being ambushed by a CLTV news crew one evening at Valois, this time with the entire family, while enjoying the last chicken pot pies of the day.

"What do you think Obama will do for Hyde Park?" came the question from the man beside the unblinking fish-eye.

The question stumped me. Since then, to the southern-California-style soundtrack of helicopters overhead, I've had a chance to think about it, and here's my best guess:

Not much.

Which is not to say I don't expect great things from Obama as President. It's just that I'm not buying the breathless local media dish that Hyde Park ( and maybe all of Chicago ) is about to get a designer drug in the form of a counter cyclical and recession-proofing happy pill that will inoculate it from the macro- and micro-economic challenges of being an inner city neighborhood.

A sampling of booster-ish sentiment from Chicago Magazine (October 2008):

Meanwhile, the Hyde Park-Kenwood area, Obama's mixed neighborhood on the South Side, would almost certainly see more action and attention ...

... What's more, quick-buck artists would likely move in, starting stores that hawk T-shirts, mugs, and other presidential novelty items...

[Bob Mason, ED of the Southeast Chicago Commission] anticipates that the influx of the tourism trade, coupled with the everyday demands of a presidential entourage and the media, will boost business for existing restaurants and shops.

An article in Crains taps into a particularly virulent local phobia: the fear of commercial development. Obama, according to some of the folks interviewed, is going to set off the economic explosion that will inevitably turn his adopted neighborhood into Lincoln Park-South.

Hyde Park will gain cachet as a place to live, but at the cost, some Hyde Parkers fear, of becoming a version of Lincoln Park, with more Starbucks, Gaps and residential teardowns.

"The Obama Water Park? No! People haven't thought enough about (commercialization), and maybe they should," says Ruth Knack, president of the Hyde Park Historical Society.

There will be no water park, of course, and Ms. Knack may be heartened to learn that Starbuck's has laid-off 1,000 workers and closed 600 U.S. stores in the last fiscal year. In fact, the Baskin-Robbins where Michelle and Barack Obama first kissed is now among the collection of empty storefronts along 53rd Street, Hyde Park's "main street."

The reality is that Barack Obama is not John D. Rockefeller, he's a man with a day-job and not a philanthropist. The benefits of his Presidency to Hyde Park are likely to be indirect and long-term, much more so than the direct benefits of, say, something like the (sotto voce!) Milton Friedman Institute for Research into Economics, with its hosts of visiting scholars and staff who will all spend money in the neighborhood.

In contrast, I have yet to see the Secret Service guys at Salonica's on 57th, and the lovely Miss Fuji-TV probably didn't stop at Thai 55 on her way out of town.

The fact is that the problems of inner city neighborhoods like Hyde Park and surrounding areas -- decades of disinvestment, lack of adequate retail amenities or commercial services, depopulation, struggling schools, a persistent level of crime, and racial segregation -- are so great that the per diem spending of Barack Obama's entourage is unlikely to affect them. And if they do, that effect may only be transient.

The tourism industry, for example, brought $2.6 million to Crawford, Texas, at its height in 2004.

Compare to that the amount of retail spending (including groceries) that leaves an area of the South Side that includes Hyde Park-Kenwood, Oakland, Bronzeville, Washington Park, and adjacent areas, to the tune of some $450 million, according to a 2004 market study cited in the Chicago Tribune.

So while that $2.6 million would certainly help the quick-buck artists, and the landlords they rent from, and the local restaurants their customers dine in, it's a long way from meeting the suppressed demand for basic needs on the South Side of Chicago.

And, as the press has recently observed, tourism revenue can wax and wane together with the fortunes of a president. The Times writes:

Of the seven gift shops that sold "Western White House" mugs, T-shirts, fridge magnets, and golf balls, three have gone bust, only two still open regularly, and one has a sale on ...

"When it all started all of these [stores] were empty," Marilyn Judy, a teacher ... said. "Now they're returning to where they were."

Let's hope a better fate is in store for the Baskin Robbins of the Obama's early romance. But it will take a lot more than the impulse spending of a presidential entourage to provide the housing, transit, jobs, and retail amenities that are needed in the President-elect's own back yard.


This post also appears at Hyde Park Progress