President Barack Hussein Obama came to Chicago last Friday to give a speech at Hyde Park Academy on the South Side, and I went to write about it.
Technically, this was my third time seeing the president speak live after making it to election night rallies in both ’08 and ‘12, but during this speech I would not have to fight the teeming hordes of Obamabots, which can consist of the sharp elbows of old Jewish ladies, 400-pound linebacker-looking dudes in FUBU hats stepping on your feet, or bubbly crowds that seemingly fell off the pages of the blog Stuff White People Like. I had a press pass to this sucker, which meant I could journalist my way all the hell over the place, and if I had a problem with the Wi-Fi there’d be some young, pert, blonde woman to address my concerns.
Just west of Lake Michigan, Hyde Park Academy is nestled between Jackson Park, a bit of low-income housing, and the University of Chicago campus. It’s basically 63rd Street, which, if you’re familiar with the geography of Chicago homicides, lies just outside the belt of the city’s most intractable violence. I don’t get down to Hyde Park much, but I’ve been enough that I know at least a few good secret streets for parking, so I stashed my car a decent walk away from HPA in hopes of beating motorcade traffic afterward and made my way to the school.
This was a very typical white-guy-on-the-South-Side stroll in that I got a few fantastically curious looks and one tall, unintelligible gentleman, who stopped to mumble something at me. I listened to him long enough to understand that he was either drunk or schizophrenic and we both agreed to move on amicably.
The underlying lesson of this moment having to do very much with Obama’s speech that day: to be very blunt about it, there are a lot of legitimately fucked up cities in the United States, and a core part of their fucked-upedness has to do with those cities segregated legacies. Chicago has become a particular exemplar recently with homicides at their highest level since 1997. Awash in cheap handguns and battered, struggling schools, with unemployment and incarceration the norm in some neighborhoods, Chicago saw 730 homicides in 2012.
Not in my part of town, though. I’m a northsider, so those neighborhoods might as well be a separate city. And therein lies part of the problem.
Security preparations for HPA were borderline militarized. A row of CTA busses lined the street in front of the school in a makeshift barricade, and each end of the street had two snowplows on either side of a cop car with their snouts menacingly lowered as if braced for Kabul suicide drivers. After getting redirected around multiple obstacles by Chicago PD, I finally spotted the other white guys in ties, their doughy backfat visible through winter coats—this is how you recognize fellow journalists.
Following a credentialing, bag search, and full-body wand, I made my way to the school’s gymnasium where bleachers and cameras surrounded a single podium, and the treacly sky-blue on the cinderblock somehow called to mind every high school gymnasium from San Diego to Portland, Maine.
I had a lot of time to kill, which I spent reading a book and chatting with the young, pert blonde woman in charge of press advance named Megan. Megan’s job was to get to everywhere the president was speaking a week in advance and set up, well, everything. She ate as she walked around trouble-shooting the crappy internet, and I tried to imagine how she ever maintained a personal life or had time to get laid. During the campaign, I pointed out, Obama was doing one of these events every five minutes.
“I’ve seen a lotta high school gyms,” she explained, and then we talked about Ohio, where her staff and Romney’s staff were basically high-fiving as they breezed by each other on the highways.
When our mayor finally emerged to introduce Obama, I was really feeling for the unfortunate kids who’d been standing on the rafters behind the podium for well over an hour. I imagined the ache in their legs, the way they would have to shift their weight around just to keep the blood circulating. It reminded me of every middle school choir concert I’d ever suffered through as a participant.
Rahm Emanuel’s nasty, F-bomb-slanging reputation aside, he’s one diminutive dude. His reedy voice bounced around the gym, and he wasted no time introducing Obama, possibly because you could feel the crowd leaning in as it attempted to anticipate which sentence would lead to the president walking on-stage.