A LOCAL BOY DONE GOOD
Next week, Barack Obama turns 50. To mark the occasion, Christian Koch visits the US president's political hometown of Chicago...
Metro, 29 July 2011
As locals say, you know when you’ve been “Obama-ed”. Whenever the slick-suited president swoops
by his Chicago home, roads shut down, ear-perforating sirens pierce the air and a quick nip down
the shops can result in being stuck in nerve-shredding traffic for hours. That’s not the only way the
Windy City has been ‘Obama-ed’.
For, ever since Barry was elected president in November 2008, tourists have flocked to his favourite
Chi-town haunts (before heading White House-wards, Obama spent 23 years working and living in
Chicago as a community organiser, civil rights attorney and on the Illinois Senate). Sure, Chicago’s
big-draw will always be its cloud-tickling skyscrapers, blues clubs and stunning lakeside beaches,
but now sightseers are scurrying 10 miles downtown to snap themselves in his favoured cafeteria,
church and heck, even his barber’s chair. You don’t get that in David Cameron’s Witney constituency.
Metro’s tour-de-Obama starts at the Art Institute of Chicago. It was here, in 1989, where Sidley & Austin
law intern Obama whisked Michelle Robinson on their inaugural date to “show that I was a cultured kind
of guy”. Luckily it’s crammed with such iconic canvasses as Grant Wood’s American Gothic, Edward Hopper’s
Nighthawks and George Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon at Le Grand Jatte, which you can gaze into just like
hypochondriac Cameron in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (also filmed in Chicago).
Next stop, Obamasville. Metro signed up with About Tours and found ourselves hurtling down Lake Shore Drive
in a comfy car, whizzing past Grant Park (where Obama held his election victory speech) as we went.
Our first stop? South Shore Cultural Center (7059 S South Shore Drive). Looking like a genteel Home Counties
golf club, have a quick mosey inside and you’ll find a cavernous ballroom where the Obamas had their wedding
reception on 18 October 1992.
Then we pitch up at St. Colombanus Church (331 East 71st Street), where family Obama has previously volunteered,
parcelling food out to hard-up local families (the priest has even marked a red spot in the car park to show where they
stood). Ushered downstairs into the food pantry, you’re greeted by beaming old folk pushing trolleys of sweetcorn around
– a bit like Santa’s Grotto crossed with a Sainsbury’s stockroom. Eventually you’ll meet ‘Miss Laverne’ – the pantry’s
motherly co-director. If you’re nice, she’ll sit you down and show you personal photo albums of the Obamas helping out.
They’re looking for volunteers – for an insight into a side of Chicago tourists never frequent, contact [email protected].
En route to Hyde Park, things get grittier with boarded-up homes, litter-strewn streets and the odd
homeless person roaming around (like Obama, they’re looking for change too). This is Chicago’s
South Side – soon to become famous with its appearance in a film adaptation of serial killer novel
The Devil in the White City, possibly starring Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s also where Michelle Obama
grew up on Euclid Avenue.
Then… veer around the corner and you’re suddenly amid the leafy streets and princely brownstones
of upscale Hyde Park. Here you’ll find the gargoyle-festooned UniversityofChicago, where Obama
taught law for 12 years from 1993 (stalkers: his favourite classroom was Room V). However, you
won’t find hipster bars here, oh no. Such is the prestige of the university,egg-headed students are
more concerned with reading books than nabbing traffic cones from the town centre. For booming
bars and vintage shops, head to Wicker Park, Chicago’s very own mini-Williamsburg, instead.
The tour then pulls up outside a Sprint mobile phone shop (1400 E. 53rd St), wedged between a
Subway and a ‘Wok’n’Roll’ takeaway joint. In its former incarnation as an ice-cream parlour, this
nondescript storefront played host to the Obama’s first snog in 1989. “I asked if I could kiss her.
It tasted of chocolate,” writes the TMI-ing president in Audacity of Hope.
Just down the road is Obama-frequenting caff, Valois (1518 E. 53rd St, valoisrestaurant.com), which
has an ‘Obama’s Favourites’ menu (he seemingly has a penchant for bovine-ovum combos such as
‘Steak and Eggs’ and ‘Steak Omelette’).
Metro then pops into Hyde Park Hair Salon (5234 S Blackstone Ave, hydeparkhairsalon.net), which
has sculpted the prez’s bonce for the last two decades. In the corner sits the presidential barber chair,
encased in bullet-proof glass (to protect it from hordes of fans). Since 2008, barber Zariff has hired his
own PR to deal with media requests, and regularly gets flown to the White House (at the president’s
expense) to trim the most important barnet in the country. The salon also offers an ‘Obama Cut’ for
$21 (we’ll be frank: it’s a close-crop by any other name).
Nestled a few blocks away, adjacent a synagogue and noisy pre-school, is the Obama homestead.
Ignore the “ATTENTION!” signs and blacked-out secret service Hummer and the blossom-strewn
street is almost Ramsay Street-esque in its residential tweeness. Stand on tiptoes on the other side
of the street, and you can peer over the sticky beak-defying conifers and security fencing to view a
redbrick Georgian manor (worth $1.65 million in 2005 when he bought it). The neighbours probably
find the surveillance irksome, but at least they’ve got the world’s best burglar alarm right on their doorstep.
The tour finishes there, but there are reams of other Obama-related activities to do in Chicago such
as shopping at Maria Pinto (where Michelle gets her frocks from) or catching a White Sox baseball game
(Barack’s a fan).
That evening, Metro dines at Spiaggia, the suave Italian restaurant perched at the head of shopping thoroughfare
Magnificent Mile. This is where the Obamas enjoyed their first post-election “date” with the presidential pair apparently
favouring the scallops (other celeb guests you might rubberneck include Oprah, Tom Hanks, Jay-Z and Beyoncé).
Afterwards, we shoot up to the 96th floor of the John Hancock Center to have a late-night cocktail in its lounge
(tip: buy a drink here and you won’t have to pay admission to the building). This is where Obama took Michelle on that
inaugural 1989 date. It worked for him, and surveying the twinkling Gotham-scape below, you’d have to be hard-nosed
curmudgeon not to fall for any suitor who drags you up here – or Chicago in general.