Obama's Chicago neighbourhood is a welcoming place for visitors
Just 15 minutes from Chicago’s busy downtown with its internationally renowned attractions lies a quiet, historic neighbourhood featuring architectural gems, world-class museums and the homes of the rich and famous including, when he can get away from his current residence, Barack Obama.
This is Hyde Park, annexed by the city in 1889, site of the fabled Chicago World’s Fair and becoming a destination in its own right. “I love it here,” says Toby Hartnell, a native Australian who has lived in Hyde Park for eight years. “It’s so quiet that the birds make more noise than the cars.”
Hartnell is part of a 200-large battalion of Chicago “greeters,” enthusiastic urban ambassadors who show visitors their favourite parts of the city at no charge. Toronto and New York offer similar programs, but Chicago’s is the most diverse with nearly 70 different neighbourhood or themed walking tours that can last up to four hours.
We are walking along East 53rd St., Hyde Park’s main thoroughfare for shopping and restaurants. “That’s where Obama and Michelle had their first date,” Hartnell says, pointing to a former Baskin-Robbins, now a Subway. In his days as a community organizer, Obama used to drop in regularly at the Valois Cafeteria for a cheap meal. A poster inside lists his favourites, including New York steak and eggs, with grits, toast and coffee for $9.95 at today’s prices. Another 53rd Street eating institution is Harold’s Chicken Shack, a Muhammad Ali destination for fried chicken when he lived up the street.
Newer restaurants, like the 24-hour Clarke’s, serving breakfast and hamburgers around the clock, are popping up as part of a massive redevelopment undertaken by the nearby University of Chicago. A major property owner in the area, the university has been offering low-cost loans to spur high-end development. The plan is to make East 53rd St. a vibrant focus for the community, including faculty, students and visitors. The university sold one parcel to a developer for $1 million after acquiring it for $9 million. At the same time, it promised to lease the project’s entire 150,000 square feet of office space. Coming soon: more restaurants, shops, a movie theatre and a Hyatt, the first post-war hotel in the neighbourhood.
An easy walk from the parkland and beaches on Lake Michigan’s shore, Hyde Park evokes a small-town feel with its tree-lined streets, common gardens and lack of high-rises. It is one of the city’s few racially integrated communities, attracting professionals, artists and others such as Jesse Jackson and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan (see photo). The area around Obama’s home is so tightly guarded these days that it is impossible for casual visitors to get a good view, but attendance at a synagogue across the street has reportedly doubled since he was elected president.
Chicago’s most famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, had a number of Hyde Park clients. One of his first homes, foreshadowing his signature Prairie School style, still remains in private hands at 5132 South Woodlawn Ave., just north of 53rd St. in the neighbourhood’s mansion district. In the spring, the owners put the 6,100 square-foot home on the market for $2.5 million. It still contains Wright’s original oak floors and stained glass windows, along with seven bedrooms and four bathrooms.
A classic Wright open-concept, horizontal Prairie house, also on South Woodlawn, sits on the university campus, just six blocks away. Robie House, now a U.S. National Historic Landmark, was built in 1908 and includes a three-car garage built when even single-car ownership was a rarity. After decades of neglect and barely escaping demolition, Robie House is being gradually restored to its former grandeur. Open to the public.
Robie House is but one of several places worth visiting at the University of Chicago, one of North America’s most exquisite urban campuses. The mammoth Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, in honour of the university’s founder, tycoon John D. Rockefeller, occupies a full block, seats 1,700 people and boasts a 72-bell carillon, the second largest in the world. Visitors are sometimes welcome to climb the tower’s 271 steps for a panoramic view of the city and Lake Michigan.
Around the corner from Robie House is the Oriental Institute, whose ancient Middle East collection attracts scholars from around the world. This is where Hartnell, 35, works. An expert on ancient Iran, he came to the University of Chicago for a PhD in archeology, fell in love with the university and city, and stayed.
One of the institute’s most stunning pieces is a 5-metre tall statue of King Tut, one foot placed majestically in front of the other. Other institute masterpieces include the colossal Bull of Persepolis, one of a pair that guarded the entrance to a Persian imperial palace, and a massive Assyrian human-headed, winged-bull bas relief, one of the largest such pieces in existence.
Hyde Park boasts more Nobel Prize winners per acre than anywhere else in the world. On campus, an outdoor Henry Moore sculpture, Nuclear Energy, pays tribute to Enrico Fermi and the university’s contribution to the Manhattan Project that built the first atomic bomb.
The university’s Smart Museum of Art, a small and easily manageable gallery, has a 5,000-piece collection of Asian, European and Modern Art. Among its highlights: paintings by Albers, Rothko and Norman Lewis, a leading African-American artist.
Just off campus, and not associated with the university, is the Dusable Museum of African American History, a growing home mostly for exhibitions and programs about Black history and culture.
About a 15-minute walk from the university in the other direction is the world-renowned Museum of Science and Industry on Lake Michigan. The museum is the only surviving structure from the 1893 World’s Fair. That fair introduced the world to the Ferris wheel and its midway, where the likes of Little Egypt and Buffalo Bill performed, is now a 10-block green strip across the university campus.
Millions visited the fair, but things are quieter these days. Says Hartnell: “Other areas of Chicago may have more action, but none has all that Hyde Park offers. It’s unique.”