Tourists flock to Obamas' Chicago home

CHICAGO -- Barack Obama's neighborhood was Sam Tanaka's first stop on his first visit here.

After arriving on a long flight from Tokyo and sleeping for four hours, the banker, 51, wanted to see Obama's house on Greenwood Avenue before his business meetings Wednesday. "My family will be so proud," he says. "I feel like I am a part of this big moment in American history."

Tanaka didn't actually see the president-elect, and security barriers prevented his taxi from driving past the house, but he got close enough to snap photos. "This is Chicago's most famous landmark now," he says.

The brick home and nearby businesses Obama and his wife Michelle patronize haven't surpassed the Sears Tower or Wrigley Field in popularity yet. Still, traffic on the Chicago Convention & Tourism Bureau website,, is up 30% since last month, the Gray Line bus tour of the area is a hot ticket, and even the barbershop Obama has patronized for 14 years is a tourist attraction.

"People just want to come in and be associated with Obama in some kind of way," says Ishmael Alamin, owner of Hyde Park Hair Salon & Barber Shop. "They want to see the chair." Several visitors from Boston came in Monday to take photos, he says. "It's great for the neighborhood. It's buzzing right now."

'Grand' homes in area

Obama's house, which he bought for $1.65 million in 2005, is in the Kenwood neighborhood, which is adjacent to Hyde Park, where he once taught at the University of Chicago Law School.

There are grand old homes in the area, but reminders of the challenges Obama will face as president are nearby.

About four blocks from Obama's home, a blinking blue light on a tall pole identifies one of the police cameras that survey the city's high-crime areas. A few blocks from there, about 30 people lined up Wednesday morning, waiting for a state unemployment office to open.

Obama's presence in a busy urban neighborhood has caused some changes for people who live nearby. Teacher Danielle Washington, 32, can no longer drive down Greenwood Avenue to get home from work because of increased security. There are concrete barricades, police cars at intersections and portable metal fences to close more streets for motorcades.

Washington has never spotted the Obamas, and the protective barrier around their home means strolls are out of the question for them now, she says. "I imagine I'll never see them."

Consultant Diane Fraley, 56, thinks the attention is great. "Hyde Park is cool now. We used to be the place you avoided. Now we're a destination," she says.

'Unbelievable' interest

Obama's victory is good for the whole city of Chicago, says Cathy Domanico, tourism director for the Convention & Tourism Bureau. Its website invites visitors to "experience the city the Obamas enjoy" and highlights restaurants and shops they frequent. The site calls 57th Street Books "an Obama family favorite" and says they like to eat at R.J. Grunts, Topolobampo and MacArthur's.

Domanico hopes convention visitors will extend their stays to visit Obama sites. "What is happening in Chicago happened in Little Rock when (President Bill) Clinton was elected," she says. "There was such a mystique about going to Little Rock."

Fran Ferrone, Gray Line's president, says his tour guides now point out a health club and restaurants Obama has visited. "When he was just a plain old senator, who would look him up?" he says. "Now people can't get enough."

Tony Mantuano, chef and partner at Spiaggia, got a taste of that interest after the Obamas dined Saturday at his Michigan Avenue restaurant. "Almost everyone that walks in says something" about eating where the newly elected president did, he says. The Obamas celebrated their anniversary there in October.

Mantuano has gotten calls and e-mails this week from friends in Italy. "They're so proud that the next president loves Italian food," he says. "It's unbelievable."

'Historically significant'

Other places with Obama links also hope to capitalize on them. In Springfield, Ill., where he served in the state Senate, the leather chair he used and other items might be donated to a museum. In Butler County, Kan., where Obama's maternal grandparents and his mother lived, Lisa Cooley, curator of education at the Butler County History Center, is considering an Obama exhibit.

"This is historically significant, so we need to embrace it," Cooley says. The house in El Dorado where the family lived is still there, she says, and Obama's great-grandmother Ruth Armour Dunham is buried in Sunset Lawns Cemetery.

Obama's first boyhood home in Hawaii also attracts sightseers, The Honolulu Advertiser reports.

Once Obama is sworn in, getting a glimpse of him will become even more difficult, and he's already altering his habits. Fans probably can stop staking out his barbershop, for example. On Tuesday, Alamin says, Obama's barber gave him a haircut at the apartment of one of the president-elect's friends.