Catherine Haskins is 36 and has never bothered to vote in a presidential election. She says that will change Nov. 4 when she votes for Barack Obama.
Until now, Haskins, a single mom and small business owner in Washington Park, one of this city's poorest neighborhoods, never believed that any presidential candidate could make a difference in her life or the lives of her three sons.
In Obama, she says, she sees a politician who was raised by his own single mom and by his grandparents, a former community organizer who worked in Chicago neighborhoods much like her own. "He gets it. He's lived it," she says.
Illinois, which sent Obama to the U.S. Senate in 2004 with 70% of the vote, could help elect the USA's first African-American president. That prospect has prompted some people here to set aside cynical attitudes about politicians, says Haskins, owner of a car wash and detailing business. "I just know that he's going to make things better for people like me," she says.
Paul Green, a political science professor at Chicago's Roosevelt University, worries that people in Washington Park expect more from Obama than he can deliver — even from the Oval Office.
The community's problems are "the same old story: jobs, education, drugs," he says. "Change is not going to be done by a president. It's not going to be done by waving a wand."
People invested the same expectations in Harold Washington, a Democrat, when he became Chicago's first black mayor in 1983, Green says, and "nothing changed."
Retiree Marilyn Nash, 61, says she understands why people think Obama can improve lives here, but she isn't sure he can fulfill those hopes. "Our problems are deep and old," she says. "We need better-paying jobs, better housing, real stuff. Politicians, even Barack, mostly give us words. That's not enough."
Obama lives in a big brick home a few dozen blocks away — across the park for which the neighborhood is named — from Washington Park. His Hyde Park neighborhood is integrated and solidly middle class, home to the University of Chicago.
Hope for a community
In Washington Park, where median income in the 2000 Census was $15,160 and more than 97% of residents are black, there are scores of vacant lots where homes and businesses once stood. There are some renovated homes and new condos, but just as many boarded-up buildings.
It's not unlike the Roseland and Riverdale neighborhoods south of here, where Obama worked as an organizer in the 1980s. In Dreams from My Father, his 1995 memoir, he described "boarded-up homes, the decaying storefronts, the aging church rolls."
Some people in Washington Park say Obama represents hope for a community that has long felt alienated from politicians. Before Obama, "politicians were somebody to be tolerated, not inspired by," says Richard Tolliver, rector at St. Edmund's Episcopal Church. "That's changing."
There's little doubt about which candidate will win Illinois' 21 Electoral College votes. Obama leads John McCain in Illinois, 53%-37%, a Big Ten Battleground Poll conducted last week found.. Democrats Al Gore and John Kerry carried the state by more than 10 percentage points over George Bush in 2000 and 2004.
Finding McCain supporters in Washington Park isn't easy, but Walter Henry, 56, a mechanic, thinks the Arizona Republican might be a better choice. "He was a prisoner of war and he's been shaking things up in Washington for a long time," Henry says. "These are tough times, and Obama might not be quite ready."
April Stogner, 35, who grew up in public housing projects and works for a tax-preparation company, says she feels a connection to Obama despite his Ivy League education and political success.
"We have pretty much similar backgrounds," she says, and he understands what life is like here. "We're barely surviving," she says. If he's elected, "a lot of things are going to change."
Counting on more jobs
People in Washington Park say they are counting on an Obama administration to help bring jobs back to an area that was once filled with commerce and industry and now has little of either. They want homes and apartment buildings fixed up, but they don't want high prices and rent to force them out of the neighborhood.
"We've been neglected for so long, we need Obama in there," says FedEx employee Andre Bishop, 45. "He touches all of us — not because he's black, but because he represents change."
If Chicago's bid to host the 2016 Summer Olympics succeeds, Washington Park would be home to a 90,000-seat stadium that residents hope would attract new businesses and new customers. A redevelopment corporation formed by St. Edmunds has invested $50 million in housing. Gentrification is edging south into the area.
Bishop says those signs of a better future have renewed interest in politics, thanks mostly to Obama. He sees volunteers going door to door every Saturday registering people to vote. Tolliver says his parishioners include men in their 20s who have never been involved in politics before but are taking their sons to hear Obama.
Haskins sees in Obama "the beginning of something new" here and across the country. "He's not disconnected from poor and struggling people."