Altgeld Gardens: Remembering the Young Obama

All evening long, the neighbors and relatives drifted in and out of Cheryl Johnson's tidy living room in Altgeld Gardens, a sprawl of low-rise apartment blocks in the far south of Chicago. On an old television with rabbit ears—many apartments here aren't yet wired for cable—they watched the electoral dominoes fall, one by one, for Barack Obama. "If he wins, I'm going to do a split and a cartwheel!" exclaimed Johnson's friend Bernadette McMath, who has been living in Milwaukee and came back to Altgeld Gardens to vote. But she's 47, and was curling her hair for work Wednesday, and so when the moment came she just helped herself to a few potato chips and looked pleased. On the streets outside—a long, long bus ride from the Loop and Grant Park, where tens of thousands had gathered to cheer the first black president—it was strangely quiet. Altgeld Gardens—one of the oldest public-housing developments in the country, now in the midst of a $500 million renovation—is more than half empty. Surrounded by expressways, landfills and abandoned factories, its dark streets don't much lend themselves to public celebration.

But this is sacred ground in the Obama saga. It was here that he came as a young man to work for an organization called the Developing Communities Project—an experience that forms the centerpiece of his memoir, "Dreams From My Father." Amid "the stench, the toxins, the empty, uninhabited landscape," Obama embarked on his journey toward the presidency with a neighborhood meeting on gang violence that drew all of 13 people. It was a "small disaster," he recalled, although it was eventually followed by a string of successes, also mostly small. If he left his mark on Altgeld Gardens, it also changed him. (Although the efforts of some of the older women "to fatten him up with cookies and other food," according to activist Linda Randle, quite evidently failed.) In his book, Obama wrote about a woman he knew there who had dropped out of school as a teenager so her brother could attend college, and who worked in a factory her whole life to send her son to college and to Yale Law School. Many politicians would have been happy to end the story on that inspirational note, but Obama went on to relate that the son developed schizophrenia and now never leaves his bedroom. In Altgeld Gardens, Obama learned about life's possibilities, and also its pitfalls and disappointments.

Even then, he was marked for greatness, or so it seems in the recollections of those who knew him. "I knew there were great heights he was going to reach," says Randle. "Some people said they knew he was going to be president. I thought he was going to be the greatest civil-rights lawyer that ever lived. But I'd take him as president." He is remembered for his ability to forge compromises, for the hundreds of evenings he spent visiting people in their homes and listening to their problems, and for the modesty—or political astuteness—he displayed in letting residents take the lead, and the credit, in the campaigns he helped organize. When he left Chicago for Harvard Law School, he encouraged one of the women he worked with, Loretta Augustine Herron (who is called "Angela" in "Dreams From My Father") to go back to school for her teaching certificate. During the campaign she returned the favor, encouraging him to do his best and, "as you always told us, to stay on the high road."

Cheryl Johnson was a young woman when Obama came to Altgeld Gardens, and she remembers him attending meetings at her mother's apartment, working on environmental issues, back when the environment was still largely considered an upper-middle-class concern. "He was so respectful!" recalls Hazel Johnson, who is 73 and still regal of bearing, even in a wheelchair. "He was always such a nice young man." She regards his race as one of the least important facts about him—less important than the fact that he grew up without money and "knows how poor people live," or that he didn't use his Harvard degree to become rich, or that his mother was an activist. Hazel considers that one of the best recommendations a person can have. She didn't even know at the time, and doesn't care now, that his mother was white. "He never mentioned she was white," she says. "Obama is a God-sent person. He's interested in justice for all—not only for black people but for everyone. That is his calling."

As the evening wears on, the neighbors come and go in Cheryl's living room; as the graphics swirl on the screen in patriotic pinwheels and the votes mount up by the millions, the tens of millions, for the black man who will lead America for the next four years. Cheryl has her own theory about the generational shift underway; she credits hip-hop for bringing young people of all races together (although, agreeing with Obama, she thinks the same young people ought to pull up their baggy pants at least above the waistbands of their underwear). Jesse Jackson, caught on camera in the crowd at Grant Park, blinks away a tear, but the sight leaves Cheryl cold; he's crying, she thinks, not because there's finally a black President, but because it's not him. The only other thing to mar her appreciation of the night is Michelle Obama's flashy black-and-scarlet dress. As Obama wraps up his speech, the quiet party winds down, and people head back to their apartments, and to bed, to wake up the next morning in an America in which once again it seems that anything is possible.