Several times a year, early and often as the machine pols would say, I make my way to Chicago. The Windy City is an incomparable place, home to some of America's greatest architecture--including Frank Lloyd Wright's most important houses and the exquisite Monadnock Building, an early skyscraper built with load-bearing masonry walls. Chicago is also one of America's most diverse cities: it has a white minority, a large African American population still concentrated in some of America's most segregated neighborhoods, a rapidly-growing Hispanic population--mainly Mexican--and sizable enclaves of immigrants from South and East Asia. Chicago is a gritty place, despite the glitz of the Loop, the Miracle Mile, and the luxury apartments of Lakeshore Drive. Its economy was ravaged by deindustrialization and the remnants of its once-mighty past as the workshop of the world can be found hulking over the South and West Sides. Chicago has staggeringly high rates of poverty and unemployment, especially among its African American population. It's a city that embodies the contradictions at the heart of modern American society: wrenching poverty amidst great wealth, racial segregation and extraordinary diversity, disinvestment and conspicuous consumption.
The Windy City--or a little section of it--is the subject of a cloying article in the current Weekly Standard. Andrew Ferguson jetted into Chicago to visit Barack Obama's neighborhood, Hyde Park, assiduously gathering material to offer another version of the tired but endlessly recycled conservative argument that the Democratic presidential candidate is an out-of-touch elitist. In Ferguson's telling, Hyde Park is a weird place peopled by an "alarmingly high number of men wandering about looking like NPR announcers--the wispy beards and wire rims, the pressed jeans and unscuffed sneakers, the backpacks and the bikes." (I don't know many NPR announcers, but my guess is that there isn't a dress code there. And who wears pressed jeans?) "The place seems unrooted," continues Ferguson, in a stream of blather that I won't keep quoting.
Although Hyde Park is one of the few racially diverse neighborhoods in the country, Ferguson finds even that problematic. Ferguson substitutes coffee shop ethnography for real research and points out that: "It's not often noted that the neighborhood's diversity has its limits. 'In Hyde Park,' a resident told me, '"integration" means white people and black people." The nation's fastest growing ethnic group, Hispanics, is scarcely represented at all; same for Asians." Rustbelt Intellectual Standard Warning No. 1: Andrew, data is not the sum of anecdote. Hyde Park, as one of its more rigorous social scientists and sharp-tongued bloggers reminds us, has a sizable Asian population and some Hispanic residents. It's also class heterogeneous in a way that most American neighborhoods are not.
To highlight Hyde Park's "isolation," Ferguson drives the half hour from Obama's "mansion" to Trinity UCC, Obama's former church, which is in a blue-collar, African American neighborhood--to Ferguson further evidence of Obama's out-of-touch lifestyle. Should Obama be living in a little, rundown bungalow instead of Hyde Park? Then, somehow, he would be one of the people.
In his prattle about Hyde Park's "isolation," Ferguson misses a very important point. Hyde Park is a distinctive place that contrasts with the surrounding, mostly poor and working-class black neighborhoods that dominate Chicago's South Side. But Hyde Parkers, unlike residents of America's truly isolated suburban communities, are part of a polity that is economically, socially, racially, and ethnically diverse. They pay their taxes to Chicago--rather than skipping across city lines and, in the process, avoiding responsibility for the city, its poor and elderly populations, and the social services that they require. They are called to serve on juries whose composition reflects, to some extent at least, the diversity of their city. In other words, Hyde Parkers are not in the slightest bit isolated politically.
The real elitists are people like John and Cindy McCain who live in a $4.72 million luxury condo in Phoenix. Or George W. Bush, who pretends to be 'jes folks, but lived in lily white, upscale Highland Park, Texas before he made it to the White House and spends his spare time at the "Western White House," usually described as a humble ranch, but which includes two 4000 square foot houses, one custom built for the Bushes, a large swimming pool and more--all on a property of more than 1100 acres. Bush is still a member of the posh Highland Park Methodist Church, in one of Dallas' richest suburbs. He doesn't see little bungalows on his way to worship. His God dwells in the land where yes, the camel and the rich man can both find their way through the eye of the needle and make it to heaven. McCain and Bush are the true, out of touch elitists. To them: get real: move to Hyde Park.