Ward Room
Covering Chicago's nine political influencers

Roseland: Where Obama Got His Start

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Mayor's Office
    Mayor Rahm Emanuel visits with players on the Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep baseball team Monday.

    I’ve been to some scary, desolate neighborhoods in Chicago, but Roseland is not one of them. It has one of the liveliest shopping strips on the South Side, at Michigan Avenue and 111th Street, where immigrant merchants hire “callers” to sit outside their hip-hop fashion stores and advertise deals to passersby. It has a real restaurant -- The Ranch, a steakhouse whose walls are decorated with photos of old movie cowboys, such as Tom Mix and Roy Rogers. It has Old Fashioned Donuts, a classic bakery whose pastries -- especially the apple fritters -- are as toothsome and fattening as any in the city.

    Roseland also plays an important role in local -- and national -- history, as the neighborhood where President Obama began working as a community organizer in 1985.
    Obama’s office was two rooms in the rectory of Holy Rosary Church, on 113th Street, across the street from Palmer Park. A soaring, vaulted church, with its own convent and grade school, Holy Rosary had once been a cornerstone of the Roseland neighborhood, filled with prosperous families. By the time Obama arrived, it was struggling to serve a multi-racial congregation, composed of blacks, Latinos, and older whites. (It has since been deconsecrated, and sold to a non-denominational church.) In the 1970s, no Chicago neighborhood changed from white to black more rapidly than Roseland, which had taken its name from the bulbs planted by its original Dutch settlers. The shopping strip on Michigan Avenue told the story: you could still see the tall marquee of Gately’s Department Store, but the business had closed a few years before, unable to compete with shopping malls. The shoe store followed, then the hardware store, then the restaurants. They were replaced by wig shops and sneaker boutiques, owned by Koreans who drove in from the suburbs each morning to raise the gates on their businesses. While the streets west of the railroad tracks had maintained a middle class, even stately appearance, the drug trade was part of the new commerce on Michigan Avenue. 
    Obama succeeded in bringing a Mayor’s Office of Employment and Training to Roseland, so Far South Siders wouldn’t have to take a long bus ride to hostile South Chicago. The ribbon-cutting ceremony was the only time he met his idol, Harold Washington.
    Walter Payton College Prep forfeited a baseball game against Gwendolyn Brooks Academy, allegedly because some Payton parents were afraid to send their sons to Roseland. I suspect that had to do with the 2009 beating death of Derrion Albert outside Fenger High School, which resulted from gang rivalries between students from Roseland and students from Altgeld Gardens, who had been shifted to Fenger when Carver High School was converted to a military academy. The game has been rescheduled for this Saturday, which will give parents and players a chance to discover Roseland. If you want to call yourself a Chicagoan, your only boundaries should be the city limits.