THE BLOG
07/16/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Barack Obama: Forensics on the Southside

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."

When Kellman finally presented Obama to his board as new director, he had already turned down four other candidates. Teacher, Loretta Augustine-Herron, was there and remembers when Obama took his place in front of the panel. "He was so young," she says, as if she had just met Obama yesterday. "All the others in the room were at least 15 years older than him, but that did not seem to bother Obama." The graduate with his still-new degree in politics made a good impression. He appeared competent, self-assured and must have already felt that he could utilize these traits to his advantage: Obama had appeal. Even then, the son of a woman from Kansas and a man from Kenya managed to get others to go along with him. "Empowerment" raves Loretta, still of this ability. "Whenever he held a training session on school reform, health or environmental protection, I wanted to hear it," she says. His message: "Everything that you do you have to do for yourselves." Jerry Kellman sees an undertone of Obama's life philosophy in this idea: "The way in which he used to work as Community Organizer is the same way in which he has built his presidential campaign: from below. It is a mirror image."

Obama held his position as social worker in southern Chicago for barely four years. Years, in which he worked for several months in Altgeld Gardens, where he helped to further a city project to refurbish apartments contaminated with glass wool or even asbestos. He did this by bringing people and organizations together to create more powerful partnerships. Years, that shaped him as a person and that he utilized politically. Was Obama's time spent in the poor districts of Chicago a calculated act that he could someday draw on make himself look good? Jerry Kellman raises his eyebrows: "Barack is a person, not a machine," he counters the question, slightly irritated. But Kellman says also: "In the end, this arena here was too small for him." Or in Loretta Augustine-Herron's words: "If you're not sitting at the table, then you're also not there when decisions are made."

Before Obama left the Southside, he went to Loretta's house for advice. Obama appreciated the opinion of the woman who was 18 years his senior and who had so considerately accompanied him during the difficult years on the Southside. Years later she even served as a model for the character "Angela," who plays an important role in Obama's book Dreams from My Father. As they had often done, they met in Loretta's small kitchen and spoke about work in the community, about the difficulties inherent in trying to effect change, "about the walls that we were consistently running up against." Obama had known for a long time that the Southside would only be an intermediate station. But in order to really belong to the ranks of the decision-makers, he needed a better education. And this was to be found at the Harvard Law School. When he finally headed off to study law at the best address in the USA, Loretta emboldened young Barack. And today she feels justified in her support: "So many people do not look back when they have become successful -- but not Barack."

After his academic years in Altgeld, Riverdale and Roseland, the intellectual challenge of Harvard attracted Obama. "Anyone who claims that he has no substance is talking nonsense," asserts Loretta, agitated. "Barack is honest. He doesn't shoot from the hip," she says. When the 65-year-old African-American sits at her living room table and talks about Obama, one notices how proud she is of him - that Obama is almost like a son for her. "When he married Michelle, he came to our table during the party and asked if we still had any wishes," she remembers. Loretta answered jokingly: "Yes, when you become President you have to invite us to one of the balls for your inauguration." The company was greatly amused about this remark. Obama laughed also.

Being honest, staying respectable -- but how in a city like Chicago? When Obama returns to the city on Lake Michigan after completing his Doctorate at Harvard (magna cum laude) in 1991, a changed city awaits him. Since the sudden death of Harold Washington, the "Daley-Machine" had taken over again. Much like his father, Richard M. Daley now controlled the city's affairs -- until today. "Nothing goes against the Daleys in Chicago," says a longtime observer. "Pay to play," is the door-opener for a career in the city of Al Capone.

But not everyone masters this trade. For example, ex-Governor, George Ryan, who was charged with corruption last year and is serving a more than six-year jail sentence. Or his successor, Rod Blagojevich, around whose throat the noose of corruption is currently tightening. The swamp is so deep that Federal Prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, has been investigating for years. "Why did they bring someone from outside to research," asks John Kass, longtime investigative reporter at the Chicago Tribune, purely rhetorically. That Obama somehow came to terms with Chicago affairs is a given for Kass. The question is simply: How?

According to Judd Miner of the law firm Miner, Barnhill & Galland, then Barack Obama primarily did his own thing in Chicago. In this city that really only knows one Party color -- namely the blue of the Democrats -- Obama did not rely on others. "In order to get what he wanted, he did not depend on the Democratic Party organization," says the today 67-year-old. Miner belongs to the liberal, Jewish Establishment of Chicago. And it obviously is fun for him to talk about Obama, who he refers to only with his forename, Barack. Miner leans back in his chair behind his desk and recalls the past, how Obama sat before him. "He had so many questions," Miner remembers. "But at the same time he seemed to be completely at peace with himself."

Miner had taken notice of Obama because of a newspaper article. As the first black president of the renowned Harvard Law Review, Obama had achieved a further degree of notoriety for the newspaper. When Miner called Harvard to speak with Obama, he had to wait in a long line. The story is rumored to go something like this: "You are number 647" is what he was told quite soberly by the receptionist. "You'll be called." That is just what Obama did -- and was hired some time later by Judd Miner. His law firm had not only a good reputation and numerous Yale and Harvard graduates on the payroll. To start with, Miner was once legal advisor to the first black Mayor of Chicago, Harold Washington, who Obama had so admired. In addition, the law firm did exactly what Obama found most interesting: It fought against discrimination of blacks and dealt with minority voting rights. Obama's start at Judd Miner's firm also opened the door to Chicago's political establishment.

"That things worked out so well for Obama later, yes, that was a bit of luck", says Miner. Luck, but at times also well thought-out tactics: He used legal means to force his most dangerous opponent, Alice Palmer, to capitulate. She had been in the running for Senator of Illinois in 1996 and Obama doubted that his competitor had legally collected the necessary signatures for her candidacy. The strategy worked. When Obama wanted to become Senator of Washington in 2004, luck came all by itself. His Republican opponent, Jack Ryan, stumbled over a sex scandal. His replacement, Alan Keyes, completely disqualified himself when he insinuated that Obama was not a Christian. Without much effort, Obama captured the Senate seat in 2004, which he continues to hold today. John Kass remarks: "Obama was never really challenged." Judd Miner says however: "Obama just has rather good instinct."

He proved this on October 2, 2002. Marilyn Katz, then as well as today, a dedicated anti-war activist, had organized an event at which Obama was to hold a speech against the escalating war against Iraq. "You have to imagine the heated atmosphere," she says in her office, just a stone's throw away from Judd Miner's law firm. "Bush had an 87 percent approval rating." Such a short time after the attacks of September 11, 2001 "no one could say anything against the war." Obama did not hesitate to make his opinion known, says Katz, who today runs a renowned PR Agency and on whose office wall there are at least a dozen pictures of Barack Obama. "I am not against every war, but I am against stupid wars," explained Obama on that day in October at exactly the same time as President George W. Bush and Congress agreed on a resolution in Washington that would open the way for the Iraq invasion. The speech on the Federal Plaza in Downtown Chicago would later become a core piece of his presidential campaign.

Even if the critical opinion of the Senator from Illinois was not initially perceived, for his supporters it was enough proof of his seriousness: "He is no light-weight," says Katz of Obama. "He has a clearly-grounded value system." And his team worked exactly in this way, aligned on this compass. "They also stayed fairly confident when it did not go so well at times," remembers Katz about the nervousness of his supporters over the last weeks and months. The key to that is Obama himself. "He can find the denominator of many differing opinions," says Marilyn Katz. And with that, she articulates what had fascinated Loretta Augustine-Herron about Obama's manner of social work on the Southside more than twenty years ago. "Obama came to us with a clipboard and first wrote down what everyone wanted and knew. And then he made a strategy based on that."

CHICAGO

Chicago was once the city of Prohibition, the city of gangster, Al Capone, and the city with the most horrifying slaughterhouses. Chicago was famous for corruption and for back-room politics. This misjudgment was not only made during the 20s and 30s of the last century, when the ban on the sale of alcohol stimulated corruption. Even today, the now elegant city struggles with the reputation that it functions based solely on its own laws.

A considerable share of that is a result of the Daleys. Together, Richard J. Daley and his son Richard M. Daley have reigned as Mayor of the Mid-West metropolis for 40 years. Politics were always conducted based on opportunity in Chicago - for example when Richard J. Daley made sure that John F. Kennedy got the necessary votes to become President. Today, Mayor Richard M. Daley presents himself as modern and open-minded. He wants to bring the 2016 Olympics to Chicago and has already brought his city into the top four.

Barack Obama's interest in Chicago was not aroused by the Daleys, but rather a different Mayor: Harold Washington. The first and only black leader of the city thus far, had ambitious reform plans, but found himself in permanent controversy in the Council. Prejudices against African-Americans broke out and at the same time, the city slid into its economic decline. Nevertheless Washington was reelected in 1987, but died shortly thereafter.

Originally published in Handelsblatt.