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Chicago's Libertarian Liberals

In case you missed the previous issue of the Weekly Standard, Andrew Ferguson’s dartboard reporting from Chicago is an interesting read. When it comes to choosing leaders of the free world, the question of residency, Ferguson tells us, is “not a trifling question. Like a gabby relative or a crooked business associate, a membership in a restrictive golf club or a long-forgotten bisexual fling, a neighborhood can be a problem for a candidate.” And Hyde Park is fair game--not least because of its infamy as an island of ethnic diversity in the congenitally segregated Chicago landscape; few other presidential candidates have as enigmatic and unique roots.

Sorrowfully, the portrait of “Mr. Obama’s Neighborhood” is thematically driven by the notion that Hyde Park is an “othered” place, full of indoor academic types, cloistered and self-congratulating eggheads eager to embrace radicalism by rote. As a native of this environment I feel compelled to dissent. Among the allegations in Ferguson’s executive summary:

On three sides it is closed in by some of the most hellish slums in the country, miles of littered streets, acres of abandoned lots, block after block of shuttered storefronts and empty apartment buildings left over from the 19th century.

Suffice it to say that geographically, the "hellish slum" talk is overblown. Not only are the lands south of 51st street (where Obama actually lives) fairly integrated and largely more affluent than some of the mixed-income homes in Hyde Park proper, a hefty fraction of UChicago students live in dorms beyond 59th street—generally recognized as an upper bound for Hyde Park and the beginning of the so-called "slum." And as much as Ferguson tries to tease out a notion that Hyde Park is for rich folks (choice quote from Rabbi Arnold Wolf, who ran the synagogue where I fairly lived for a few months in seventh grade: “there's only one class--upper!”), the income for Hyde Park is below both city and state averages. And with thousands of students and young families, not to mention dives like Woodlawn Tap, it's hardly a place for ostentation.

Granted, the throroughfare on 47th street was, for most of my childhood, a boarded-up strip leading west to the Robert Taylor housing projects, but the demographic ordering of Hyde Park has--with the help of the recent housing boom--rapidly diffused into the areas north and south of Hyde Park proper. The trend, if there is one to be noted, is certainly toward urban renewal of a sort that lifts all boats. (Of course, the blighted land of Trinity Church—40 blocks south and west—is a different world entirely, but I'll leave you all to ponder why Obama didn't join the very nice Episcopal church that is walking distance from his home, off Shoesmith Park.)

Lest we believe Hyde Park is economically and socially diverse enough to withstand charges of elitism, Ferguson then takes aim at the lone tempering agent—the University of Chicago’s legendary academic conservatism:

[T]he reputation for right-wingery is based on a simple if imprecise bit of data that shocks the delicate sensibilities of college professors: Of the tens of thousands of faculty who have taught at the University of Chicago over the past half-century, perhaps as many as 65 have, at some point in their lives, voted for a Republican. …[Allan] Bloom is dead. So is [Milton] Friedman. The Olin Center closed its doors in 2005. Their disciples and colleagues who remain at the university aren't getting any younger. It's unlikely that the school's wobbly reputation for conservatism, and the neighborhood's, will survive them.

This is plainly wrong. Setting aside the many conservatives who have populated the departments of economics, political science and law (the lionized Friedman, as well as staunch conservatives like Eric Posner, Michael McConnell, Richard Epstein, or Jack Goldsmith), the community's values system is totally empirical. Steven Levitt’s controversial study on the linkage between abortion jurisprudence and diminishing crime rates—while it prompted grumbling in Cambridge, Palo Alto and Morningside Heights—caused not one ripple of disapproval at Chicago.

Of course, the University has also offered positions to the radical feminist Catharine McKinnon, demonstrating an intellectual range that is endemic to any prominent research university. One longtime faculty member tells me:

To call this place a liberal place with a few conservatives is ridiculous. Conservative thinking is pervasive--it's pervasive among the students, it's pervasive among the faculty. At the law school, to defend a significant increase in the minimum wage is to expose yourself to vigorous conterarguments. To say that rent control is a good idea is to say things that sound crazy to most. To treat Ronald Reagan as a bad president, you must be prepared to defend yourself.

And one has only to read Naomi Klein’s recent distrustful essay on “Obama’s Chicago Boys” to know that if the university’s conservatism is waning, up-and-down liberals like Klein haven’t noticed.

The worst part of the article is Ferguson’s unwarranted black/white, rich/poor overlay, and the intimation of groupthink, or liberal naivete among Hyde Park residents (Ayers = "just another guy from the neighborhood"). The neighborhood's robust civic culture--and its many Hispanic, Asian and international residents--is explicitly of the University. Every department, from neuroscience to economics to anthropology, has ambassadors in the community, many who are foreign-born. And the indifference to Ayers' past (or even Rashid Khalidi against whom Sean Hannity has been demagoguing) is, I think, an expression of the fact that Hyde Park is a fairly libertarian place. 

The lack of commercial culture in Hyde Park is instructive on this point, had Ferguson wanted to do the legwork rather than lobbing absurdities about there being "no place" to buy groceries. Traditional retail has been wary of settling in Hyde Park, for two revealing reasons: 1) The undesirability of "south side" real estate (of which, contra Ferguson, Hyde Park is decidedly a part). The logic is that poor--cough, black--people with no taste and no money don't make for good customers. And 2) The territorial nature of Hyde Parkers themselves. The community's Save the Point movement is a case in, uh, point. And the independent bookstores (Powell's, the legendary Seminary co-op), joined with residents, pushed back hard against construction of a big Borders in the center of town. Hyde Park relishes its "world apart" and vaguely libertarian civics--and has quashed many a plan for "renewal" since.

In countless ways, Hyde Park's strong civic culture operates outside of geopolitics, so that Ayers' foolishness, Khalidi's scholarship and Obama's highbrow Alinskyism are apiece with the free-living dynamics of the place--rather than examples of some radical subculture. Which is why Ferguson's conclusion is so wrong:

This is the perfect place for a man without an identity to make one of his own choosing. 

Or, I'd posit: the place for a man whose identity is unorthodox to live in peace.

--Dayo Olopade 

Photo courtesy of Library of Congress: Edwin Rosskam, “Children in front of moving picture theater, Easter Sunday matinee, Black Belt, Chicago, Illinois” (1941).