Chicago is extraordinarily segregated. White faces are scarce on the South Side, and by the time my train reaches the final stop I’m the only cracker left. I’m sure there are diverse pockets somewhere around here, but not from where I’m sitting.
Everyone is mighty friendly, and some are even concerned about me walking around. One teenager informs me that the way I wear my hat – cocked and to the side – might be considered a sign of hostility by local gang members. He’s serious, but his friend decides that I’ll be safe on account of being white: “Ain’t nobody fucking with him man.”
I travel for nearly an hour on two trains and a bus before arriving at the South Side phone bank. But, after all that, a kind older woman at the front desk won’t let me in, and even produces a note from campaign headquarters to prove that the orders were handed down from above. “I know you came all the way from Boston, honey, but I just had to tell a camera crew from France that they couldn’t come in just the same.”
The South Side phone bank is a vacant storefront in a giant strip mall that’s a relative mirage in a neighborhood where three out of every four shops is out of business. I wouldn’t let reporters in here either – it’s an eyesore of epic proportions with just 20 volunteers making calls.
The space is at least 10,000 square feet – it couldn’t house a Bed, Bath & Beyond, but a Pier 1 Imports would fit well here. The floors are still bare concrete, and the temporary furniture consists of eight collapsible tables and about two-dozen folding chairs.
As I’m leaving, a middle-aged black woman walks through the door. She wants to make calls, but she didn’t know that she needs to use her own cell phone. There are no land lines here, and the 10 campaign cells are already taken. “I’ll just have to come back after peak hours,” she says.
I expected more visible Obama enthusiasm down here. But after walking these streets I realize that as anxious as everybody may be for tomorrow evening, they have more immediate concerns. This isn’t merely Everyhood, USA. It’s much bigger, and much more depressed.
Like the South Bronx 20 years ago, the South Side is a massive wasteland littered with gigantic housing projects, barren storefronts, and a church for every five people. Brick monstrosities rise from vast burnt grass fields that stretch as far as I can see.
I hope that people down here have enough energy after work to hit the phones. So does Jerry, a man I meet while I’m waiting for a bus back downtown. “For every one Obama call that’s made from these parts,” he says, “there’s a door knocker in Indiana telling people that they have to worry about a black man becoming president if they don’t vote for John McCain.”