Obama, first urban president since 1881

Along East 53rd’s sidewalks bustling with well-dressed families both black and white, he found a neighborhood perfectly befitting a bi-racial Ivy League man

Friday 23 January 2009

Upon leaving office, George W. Bush returned to the seclusion of his 1,600-acre ranch 20 minutes out of tiny Crawford, Tex. — itself two-and-a-half hours from Dallas-Forth Worth. Bill Clinton came to the White House via the Arkansas Governor’s mansion and exited into a modest 11-room Neo-Dutch Colonial in exurban Chappaqua, N.Y. — an hour’s drive from Manhattan. Ronald Regan lived in Bel-Air (the Los Angeles suburb made famous by the Fresh Prince), Jimmy Carter on his peanut farm in Georgia, Gerald Ford in Virginia’s wealthy Alexandria, LBJ in the Houston sticks. Even JFK, who spent two boyhood years in the Bronx and enough time in Boston, made his primary home at the six-acre Kennedy Compound in small-town Hyannis, Mass.

So vast has been the succession of country and suburban gentlemen to the Executive chair that finding an urban president — a man who lived and worked primarily within the core of one of America’s great metropolises — requires looking back to 1881, when, following James Garfield’s assassination, the nation’s highest office fell to vice-president Chester A. Arthur, a lawyer and civil servant who before and after the White House lived and worked in Manhattan.

In 1984, a 23-year-old Barack Obama, freshly graduated from Columbia, vacated his Manhattan apartment to accept directorship of the Developing Communities Project, a non-profit in South Side Chicago. Here, along East 53rd’s sidewalks bustling with well-dressed families both black and white, Obama found a neighbourhood perfectly befitting a bi-racial Ivy League man: Hyde Park.

It’s a salt-and-pepper, middle-class mix, an educated enclave encrusted with architectural gems, bordered by Washington Park to the west, the splendid University of Chicago to the south and to the north, wealthy Kenwood, where Obama’s mansion lies a quarter block north of tree-lined Hyde Park Boulevard.

Hyde Park is the American Dream manifested — a model of integration and an oasis of prosperous civility in a South Side desert that saw much of its housing stock razed in the 1960s and 70s as landlords walked away from their properties. Incredibly, for the first time in 127 years, we have a president whose primary residence sits where he can walk just minutes to shop for groceries, dine at dozens of restaurants, visit a museum or take a dance lesson. Unless he’s leaving the neighbourhood, Obama can leave his Ford Explorer Hybrid parked at home. Or he can get downtown in minutes via the 6 Jackson Park Express or by hopping on the Metra commuter train. At least he could’ve until the mandatory motorcades.

“Our communities will better serve all of their residents if we are able to leave our cars to walk, bicycle and access other transportation alternatives,” said Obama’s Office of the President-Elect Web site, change.gov, before his confirmation. “As president, Barack Obama will re-evaluate the transportation funding process to ensure that smart growth considerations are taken into account ….”

Coming from Obama, these words actually carry weight. Indeed, the Web site included an entire page devoted to Urban Policy with a promise to create a “Director of Urban Policy [who] will report directly to the president and co-ordinate all federal urban programs.” Other big ideas: a $7,000 federal tax credit for new hybrid vehicle purchases, and a goal of one million plug-in hybrid cars on America’s roads by 2015. And knowing that Chicago’s elevated train system is what has kept the city’s centre strong, look for Obama’s planned National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank to invest big-time in mass transit with new lines, extensions to existing lines and brand new light-rail train systems being rolled out.

Even with oil less expensive than it was months ago, the first casualty of many home budgets in any downcycle will be the vehicle — expensive to maintain and largely unnecessary in the presence of good-quality transit. Rather than being catastrophic, a large-scale relinquishing of automobile ownership will add value to neighbourhoods that, like Hyde Park, enjoy 24-hour transit service and a walkable scale.

Hyde Park represents the sort of “regional innovation cluster” Obama’s Urban Policy seeks to promote. If his home neighbourhood has helped shape his vision for city neighbourhoods throughout America, we might indeed be in for an urban renaissance that outdoes even the last decade.