Today's date:
Winter 2009

Ghosts of Obama’s Hyde Park Manse

Nathan Gardels is editor of NPQ.

Because he is the first African-American president, Barack Obama’s Hyde Park home is destined to become a national landmark like his idol Abraham Lincoln’s house in Springfield. But perhaps even Barack and Michelle themselves don’t know that the spirit of social justice inhabited that house at 51st and Greenwood well before they did.

When I lived there off and on between 1969 and 1973, the mansion, owned by Lutheran Urban Ministries and overseen by the unconventional Rev. George Hrbek, was a hub of social activism. As you entered the house from the front door, the reception area on the left had been turned into a community meeting room with inspirational quotes, if my memory serves, from Albert Camus, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Bible painted on the walls above the fireplace. On Sunday there were “joyous celebrations” in that room accompanied by guitar instead of “church services.”

A grand stairwell on the right led to the upper floors, which were divided into separate rooms where I lived along with the Hrbek family as well as a struggling director who often staged Edward Albee plays at the Lutheran School of Theology campus, down the street near the University of Chicago. At the back of the 6,000-square-foot mansion on the first floor was a large kitchen and dining area, where we ate collectively, with another, less grand, stairwell leading up the back as well as down to the considerable basement (which I now gather is a “wine cellar”).

I first came to the house in the summer of 1969, when I was 16, as part of an “urban encounter” program which sought to sensitize white suburban youth to the plight of the black inner city. We attended rallies protesting police brutality after the killing of Fred Hampton, the Chicago Black Panther leader who was a friend of Hrbek. We wrote grant proposals to the Joyce Foundation for People Against Racism, canvassed the housing projects and studied the failures of urban renewal. On Saturday mornings we went to Operation PUSH to listen to Jesse Jackson preach “I Am Somebody.” During one period we would hold sit-ins to block the aisles of supermarkets as part of the United Farm Workers’ grape boycott, organized in those days in Chicago by Eliseo Medina. There was one episode, supremely ironic in light of the current owners, in which local black power advocates demanded that “if you white liberals are so big on social justice, ‘give’ this mansion to us.” Hrbek, of course, blew them off and threw them out.

On some warm summer evenings we’d climb out onto the rooftop from the third-floor windows and listen to the gunshots around the neighborhood, heeding the word-of-mouth warnings that we should stay off the streets because the Black Stone Rangers were going to rumble. (Though the area between 51st and 47th Streets is lined with stately homes, the ghetto abruptly begins right across the 47th Street dividing line.)

Other nights, after returning from Harper’s Court where we got ice cream and browsed the bookstore, we’d sit on the steps of the Isaiah Synagogue across the street on Greenwood and wait for Muhammad Ali to walk by on his regular visits to Elijah Muhammad who lived then around the corner, where, as I remember it, he built identical houses for his three sons.

I lived in the Greenwood house again off and on when I became editor of The Bridge, the youth newspaper of the Lutheran Church Missouri-Synod. By that time I, like others in the house, was involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement, particularly in the defense of the Harrisburg 8—the Berrigan brothers, who were Catholic priests, and a handful of activists accused of conspiring to kidnap Henry Kissinger. I used to escort around town one of the defendants, Eqbal Ahmed, a Pakistani scholar at the University of Chicago whose office was in the famous Robie House, built by Frank Lloyd Wright. A controversy similar to that which later swirled around Obama and another University of Chicago scholar, the Palestinian Rashid Khalidi, swirled in those days around Ahmed. I remember driving him once to a North Shore temple where he tried, to no avail and much abuse, to make the Palestinian case that being anti-Zionist was not the same as being anti-Semitic.

There is a final irony to my time living in the house the Obamas would occupy. My room was the front room on right-hand side on the second floor overlooking Greenwood toward the synagogue. One freezing winter day in the early ’70s when the future looked bleak, I gazed out the window at a slate sky, the bare, black branches of the trees lining the street dusted with snow. I said to myself: “History is never going to come to this place, I’ve got to get out of here and go to California, where the action is.”