Under the Microscope: The national media and the real Hyde Park

Reminding us that Barack Obama once dismissed Bill Ayers as just “a guy who lives in my neighborhood,” the Weekly Standard last June asked what kind of a person lives in a neighborhood like that. The Washington Post’s coverage of Hyde Park celebrates the proximity of an Aveda salon “only steps” from a payday loans franchise. And in a video debate on the New York Times’ website, a pooh-poohing Eli Lake wonders how many hacky sack stores the neighborhood supports.
Is that really our Hyde Park they’re talking about? Drum circles, organic gardens on every corner, munificent racial tolerance, and, as the Standard put it, “‘cranky old domestic terrorists wandering through the yard'”?

The unflagging appetite for details of Obama’s personal life has prompted a flurry of profiles of Hyde Park in the national media in the last few months. Some of the over-the-top characterization of the neighborhood is understandable, given journalists’ desire to read something into Obama’s neighborhood, aligning it with a particular agenda or lifestyle. The question is, did they get it right?
Petty as the question posed in the Weekly Standard may seem, it is not inconsequential. American voters attach a lot of importance to where their candidates shop for groceries. The otherwise barren political landscape of stump speeches and photo-ops provides its plasticized figureheads about as much character and authenticity as Ken dolls. And true to our partisan politics, the media has produced a bipartisan set of portraits of Hyde Park: one painting our neighborhood as a liberal nexus between unrepentant domestic terrorists and elitist fair-trade coffee-sipping yuppies, and another emphasizing the evident diversity of the area, proclaiming it to be a “bastion of integration,” where the progressive dream for urban America has come true.

Of course both versions are based on elements of the truth about the neighborhood. Looking at the 2000 Census, Hyde Park is one of the most integrated neighborhoods in Chicago. The population of 29,920 is about 44 percent white and 38 percent black, roughly in line with the racial breakdown for the city as a whole. Hyde Park is also home to a significant Asian population, comprising 11 percent of the population.

We’re economically diverse, too, with plenty of residents earning six-figure salaries, more than one in ten individuals living below the poverty level, and a middle-of-the-road median household income of $44,000. As the Washington Post pointed out, this combination produces an array of commercial activity catering to both epicureans who peruse imported butter at “America’s Most European Supermarket” and lovers of the half regular with hot sauce at Harold’s.

The New York Times called Hyde Park a “bastion of integration” in a segregated city. But the other articles point out that this integration fails to dip below a certain socioeconomic bracket, resulting in an integration that Mike Nichols characterized wryly as “black and white, working shoulder to shoulder against the poor.” This idea comes from urban renewal policies of the 1950s that leveled swaths of low-income housing and neighborhood nightlife as the University attempted to reshape its surroundings.

The socioeconomic and racial diversity of Hyde Park is evident in a walk down 53rd Street, even if actual integration, in the full sense of acceptance, is not. Although its idealization as “a place where differences are just differences” may be a stretch, Hyde Park is definitely, as the Washington Post writes, “all about the mix.”

Below the upper socioeconomic stratum the social scene in Hyde Park is more discordant than integrated. In his sociological tract focusing on the landmark Valois cafeteria, “Slim’s Table,” Mitchell Dunier spoke of Hyde Park as a community of “social contrasts”–contrasts such as those “between some of the best academic bookstores in the world…and branches of the best chicken rib shacks on the near South Side…; between the BMWs of Chicago’s ‘buppies’ (black urban professionals) and the maroon-striped campus buses that transport thousands of white students through the streets considered to be dangerous.” For many residents, Hyde Park offers alternative experiences, rather than a cohesive Kumbaya-type one. After all, there’s not much chance of the customers from the Aveda salon popping next door for a payday loan after dropping $22.99 on a bottle of tea tree oil shampoo (or vice versa).

Besides the theme of diversity and integration, media profiles of Hyde Park all emphasize its political liberalism. Its representatives on city council have historically resisted the machine politics of patronage and cronyism. Informal measures of a neighborhood’s politics testify to a liberal bent in residents as well. Clunky old cars with “Free Tibet” stickers line the blocks, and a sign in the church at 57th and University announces that it’s a nuclear-free zone.

However, even these qualities don’t justify the Weekly Standard’s suggestion that Hyde Park is something like a “Berkeley with snow.” The simple equation of academia with political liberalism is only partially true: while the majority of faculty and students hold liberal political views and values, they are tempered by the more fundamental value placed on pragmatic intellectual rigor. Moreover, the University of Chicago served as the incubator for the intellectuals conservatives love, like Milton Friedman, Allan Bloom, and Leo Strauss. The Weekly Standard’s Andrew Ferguson calls the University of Chicago’s reputation for conservatism “wobbly,” but the campus atmosphere is a far cry from the atmosphere of activist ferment on a campus like UC-Berkeley. If anything, the UofC is a place where thoughtful opinion from all points on the political spectrum can find a receptive audience. Like Hyde Park as a whole, it is far too complicated and full of life to be summed up in a couple columns of newsprint. Hyde Park may be a place where domestic terrorists rub shoulders with free-market evangelists, but first and foremost it’s a neighborhood like any other, with its own shared history, established institutions, and local heroes.