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In Obama’s Old Neighborhood, the Excitement is Muted

CHICAGO—Valois Cafeteria is little more than nine blocks from the Obama family home on Hyde Park Boulevard, just down the street from my own apartment, but even closer to where the little studio where a 24-year-old community organizer lived in he arrived in Chicago in 1985 with dreams of his father and of changing the world. Valois was just the place for a young man like Barack Obama, not just because the cafeteria-style meals (motto: “See your food”) was cheap and plentiful, but because it laid out the social landscape of his new neighborhood right there before his eyes; nine years later, a sociologist named Mitchell Duneier published a classic ethnography called Slim’s Table, later optioned by Spike Lee for a TV series that never got made, after hunkering down at Valois for years to get a sense of how barely-middle class black men on the South Side of Chicago thought and felt.

Usually a loose and convivial scene, tonight the setting at Valois is downright formal: the tables are covered with white table clothes and red, white, and blue balloons, and eighty or so residents of the President’s neighborhood have assembled under the auspices of Obama campaign for a acceptance speech-watching party. You’d imagine that the crowd, mostly black and middle aged or older, would be perfectly ecstatic to be here. After all, I’ll never forget what it was like in Hyde Park four years ago during the first presidential campaign: the demotic flowering of oversized T-shirt art (Barack’s face in black sequins; Barack “44” baseball jerseys); the entire corner of the Walgreen’s on 55th Street devoted to selling Obama kitsch like the “Barock” (that familiar face etched on a black stone). But just like the way the motor coaches of full of tourists curious for a glimpse of a president’s house disappeared after a year or two, so it seems much of the enthusiasm for Obama has folded tent.

There are official campaign signs at every table: “African-Americans for Obama,” the familiar blue-backed rainbow-sunrise “Obama-Biden” signs. The room’s definitely been well “advanced” (the name tag stickers people wear are the same shade of official Obama blue). But I don't see a single sign hefted all evening. Collective applause, which is supposed to be the point—“when you feel inspired to clap,” the email invitation said, “you’ll be surrounded by others who are clapping too”—is conspicuously lacking; a minute, two minutes, and half a dozen relatively well-received lines in the hall in Charlotte, pass before you hear a smattering of claps in the restaurant. The President’s only real hit was his reflection about how things have changed for him in four years: “I’m no longer just a candidate. I’m the President.” It probably wasn’t intended that way by the speechwriters, but in this room, it produces at least a bit of a defiant, “Oh no he didn’t!” charge. It’s late in the speech, and a couple of well-coiffed African American women try to use it to raise up some churchy call-and-response. But it doesn’t catch on. 

The “I killed Osama bin Laden” stuff that is supposed to be the speech’s emotion spine isn’t going over; “Maybe it’s because Hyde Park is full of pacifists,” a friend, a University of Chicago philosophy Ph.D., suggests philosophically. Maybe it’s because it’s because native-son sentiment isn’t really Hyde Park’s bag: “It’s a place where you can keep one foot out of town,” the Chicago memoirist and labor lawyer Tom Geoghegan reflected recently in a discussion we had about how genuinely “Chicagoan” Obama truly is. “You’re with a lot of transients; you’re with a lot of people who aren’t from Chicago. Even his career here: professor at the University of Chicago Law School? That’s one foot out of town just by being here.”

Or maybe the four different varieties of beef Valois has special tonight is just making people sleepy. Whatever it is, the situation is wan. “We will never forget you,” the President is saying, addressing himself to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans; a bearded, pony-tailed white guy next to me yawns. Afterward, I chat up a lovely thirty-three year old with Erykah Badu hair and her boyfriend, who owns a print shop across the street. They claim to be enthusiastic about what they’ve seen and heard, perhaps protesting too much; four months ago, they signed up to volunteer for the campaign. “But we haven’t done anything yet.” Up front, a guy with a bow tie sticking out of his Obama-Biden T-shirt, explains how early voting works in Iowa, which of course unlike Illinois is a swing state. He then tries to recruit people to sign up for bus rides there. But two-thirds of Barack Obama’s former neighbors are already out the door.