Doctors Hospital hotel blocked for at least four years, precinct voted dry

Residents voted the 39th precinct dry on Tuesday, halting University plans to convert the vacant Doctor’s Hospital into a hotel.

By Ella Christoph

Rico Miller, a barber at the shop where Barack Obama gets coiffed, likes to tell reporters that the election has already brought change—at a very local level.

“The Senator got some grays dealing with what he’s been dealing with,” Miller says, as he buzzes a neat hairline on a client’s neck. “He’s getting a more presidential look. But it’s all natural. No chemicals.”

Hyde Park Hair Salon, on the corner of South Blackstone Avenue and East 53rd Street, had never fielded someone from the international media before the campaign. But now a barber sits near the door to direct reporters with video cameras and microphones to whomever can best meet their various demands.

“We’ve had people from all over—Switzerland, Japan, Russia, England,” Miller said. “I mean, they’re coming in from every part of the world.”

As the million-watt glare of the international spotlight has affixed itself to Obama over the last few years, some of the sheen has refracted onto Hyde Park. And even as the country waits to see if Obama can deliver change, many Hyde Parkers left their homes on Wednesday with an after-the-quake recognition that their neighborhood has already been altered forever. If it’s anything like Crawford, TX, known locally as “the Western White House,” Obama’s home on East 51st Street could host world leaders and provide a Midwestern getaway where the walls can speak of decisions that impacted the future of the world.

“I’d be surprised if this neighborhood were not known from now on as the home neighborhood of Barack Obama,” said Rudoph Nimocks, executive director of the University of Chicago Police Department and a neighborhood resident for almost 60 years. “It was such a historic event for the whole country, historians years from now will be in Hyde Park trying to document the event and all the ancillary things that happened because of it.”

The South Side has been probed this election cycle in part because the Obamas invoke it as a feature of their identity. Michelle Obama touts her South Side roots to trump up her non-elitist cred, and her husband is identified with his activism in South Side communities. It’s no wonder Hyde Park has become a starting point for far-flung onlookers sleuthing for clues on what kind of man was elected.

“They want to know, who is this man? What’s his personality like?” said Sterling Watson, a Hyde Park resident and the 75-year-old former “Jazz Doctor” at a local radio station. “They wanted to know about where he’s from. I tell them, he comes from a place where if he wanted, he could put on my show and listen to the sounds of Billie Holiday.”

Watson said Hyde Parkers are proud to fill the role of unofficial campaign spokespeople.

“Nobody here minds it,” he said. “We all protected him and got him here.”

But if the victory means change is about to hit Hyde Park, some local transformations may not be visible. Just ask Carol Almond, county clerk in Hope, AK.

“With Hope, in particular, when you say ‘A Place Called Hope,’ everyone knows what you’re talking about,” she said. “There was, just overwhelmingly, this new sense of pride.”

Will Burns, the newly elected state representative for Hyde Park’s district and a former aide to Obama, agreed that this is a proud moment for the South Side.

“If you’re a 10-year-old growing up on the South Side of Chicago, this means you can be anything you want,” he said. “The last domino has truly fallen. So it’s just a matter of putting your nose to the grindstone and working hard. I can tell my daughter, who’s a year old, Barack Obama did it; you can do it.”

On Wednesday, South Side pride meant vying to pick up copies of a newspaper announcing Obama’s win.

Drivers and pedestrians beelined toward a newspaper stand on East 53rd Street when a Sun-Times truck arrived, forming a line dozens long to score a copy of one of the victory-day papers that have gone for up to 100s of dollars on eBay.

But according to Hope residents, pride won’t come on its own. In the small AK town, it was accompanied by Clinton-centric landmarks that drew visitors from across the globe.

Fifth-ward alderman Leslie Hairston anticipates the same sort of change on the South Side.

“Just like Lincoln’s home is a tourist attraction, Hyde Park is now a tourist attraction. We’ve also got the University of Chicago, of course, the Robie House, the Museum of Science and Industry, and now the home to the new president of the United States,” she said.

In fact, Hairston thinks Obama will stimulate the Hyde Park economy before he even touches the tax code.

“For local businesses, it’s an opportunity to expand their customer base. Now Hyde Park can be a destination place. We want to encourage people to shop in Hyde Park,” she said. “I think that it will bring more prominence to the area as a residential neighborhood; I think it will also benefit the University of Chicago.”

But Hairston worried that potential gains for the real estate and business sectors could stagnate because the area lacks the structure that would support a tourist industry. She expressed disappointment over the blocking of a new hotel, voted down on the same ballot that elected Obama.

Still, the Obama merchandise sector is thriving, with a competitive market for Obama-themed T-shirts cropping up at new concession stands on East 53rd Street.

“Sales would pick up if the guy up the block didn’t have his prices so low,” said Fred Williams, whose t-shirts with the image of the new first family sell for almost double the amount of gear down the street, emblazoned with a close-up of Obama’s face. “Go tell him to raise his prices or I’m not going to make any money.”

Even with the healthy enthusiasm, the residents of Crawford, TX, might remind Hyde Parkers that change isn’t always a good thing.

Donald Citrano, who owns a diner near President Bush’s ranch, said that after the president’s approval rating plummeted, the novelty of having a famous neighbor wore off.

“After the start of the second term things started to fall off. People started coming down here to protest the war,” said Citrano, who has catered events at the president’s ranch. “Protesters—they sure know how to mess up a good thing.”