This week the cover article for the conservative magazine the Weekly Standard is about Chicago's Hyde Park -- home to the University of Chicago and, of course, Barack Obama. The article is a mix of insight, glaring oversight and a handful of cheap shots. The author, Andrew Ferguson, more or less concludes that Hyde Park, for all its racial integration, is really an exclusive country club in disguise. To paraphrase one interviewee, Hyde Park doesn't have any class conflict because there is only one class -- upper. And thus, Obama's neighborhood betrays all his supposed faults, especially his lack of authenticity, wealth and elitism.
This would hardly be blog-worthy if it were just the same old line used on every democratic nominee since McGovern. But, damn it, I lived in Hyde Park for six years, and if you're going to slam the hood (and all the good people who live there) at least get your story straight. My main impression of the article was that Ferguson had spent a couple of days there, walked around a bit, talked to a bunch of rich acquaintances and then wrote it up. He mentions all the pieces that don't fit this cozy thesis (like the lack of expensive restaurants), and breezes right over them.
To be sure Hyde Park has some wealthy inhabitants and the university loves to burnish its image as the ivory-est of ivory towers. And crucially, as Ferguson relates, there is an ugly history to its isolationism that the university is still trying to live down (although considerably less ugly than other parts of Chicago).
Yet when I lived there, I had friends who were waiters and construction workers and, you know, starving humanities grad students living out of their cars. Our church had a handful of professors but a larger number of regular neighborhood folks. Next door was an immigrant family who were running a church out of an un-rented apartment in our building. In the summer, everyone goes to the beach and plays softball in the park and enjoys the long evenings. Among the students, there was a fair bit of griping about the place - but almost none of it had to do with HP being too upscale.
In fact, the rep was usually just the opposite. One prof of mine used to complain about how hard it was to find a decent latte. Non-south-siders often worried for your safety when you told them where you lived. Obnoxious freshmen made jokes about bullet-proof vests. But that's not fair either. HP isn't the ghetto - it's a middle class black neighborhood with a world class university grafted onto it. This combination makes it unusual, but not in the trite ways Ferguson implies. In short, a college town, warts and all.
Hyde Park is by no means perfect, but I loved living there, and it deserves a fuller telling of its charms and flaws and history than this cheap political pop psychology.