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posted: 8/25/2012 8:13 AM

Ex-Obama supporters disillusioned on South Side

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  • Mark Allen heads Black Wall Street Chicago, an organization that works to promote economic growth on the South Side of Chicago. He is frustrated that the federal stimulus program did little to help that area.

      Mark Allen heads Black Wall Street Chicago, an organization that works to promote economic growth on the South Side of Chicago. He is frustrated that the federal stimulus program did little to help that area.
    The Washington Post

  • Mark Allen, center, speaks with Emmanuel Jackson, chief executive of Evanston Technology Partners, as friend Joe McAtee passes by in Chicago. Allen is among those frustrated that the federal stimulus program did little to help the South Side of Chicago.

      Mark Allen, center, speaks with Emmanuel Jackson, chief executive of Evanston Technology Partners, as friend Joe McAtee passes by in Chicago. Allen is among those frustrated that the federal stimulus program did little to help the South Side of Chicago.
    The Washington Post

 
By The Washington Post

He still walks the same streets here as his old acquaintance Barack Obama once did. That is about all they have in common anymore.

At 50, Chicago activist Mark Allen lives with his parents, barely able to pay his bills. The head of a small, community-assistance organization called Black Wall Street Chicago, Allen regards his personal survival alone as a small victory, grateful he can pay the rent on his modest office space, aware he is doing better than many on this city's restive South Side.

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"Things haven't gone the way we'd hoped after Barack got elected," he says. Surveys place unemployment rates above 25 percent here, and indications are that South Side residents such as Allen aren't nearly as passionate about the 2012 election as they were during Obama's trailblazing 2008 campaign.

Historically, community organizers such as Allen have wielded outsize influence in the black-majority neighborhoods of the South Side, with none better known than Obama, who directed a group called the Developing Communities Project for three years during the 1980s. But old bonds between the two have frayed. Allen, who as a member of another group worked on community issues with Obama during their organizing days, has grown frustrated with his former ally in the Oval Office.

Obama's much ballyhooed 2009 stimulus package has failed to touch ordinary South Side residents, says Allen, who has reached out to Obama administration officials, including fellow Chicagoan and prominent White House adviser Valerie Jarrett, to express his dismay. He wants red tape cut, and he wants to see more business loans for the area and more jobs for local residents on construction and infrastructure projects.

Allen, who views the South Side's pain as common to U.S. inner cities, also offers a political warning for Obama's campaign strategists. The disillusionment of once fierce Obama admirers, he suggests, may hamper the president's reelection chances by subtly dampening black voter turnout.

"His people should've done something more about it by now," he says. "But that's Barack's problem, not mine."

Besides, he couldn't care less about politics at the moment, he adds. It explains why he is hurrying past a portrait of Obama and out of his office.

He steps onto the streets of the largely African-American community of Bronzeville, which occupies a special place in the South Side psyche. Bronzeville was a jewel during the first half of the 20th century, when black-owned businesses accounted for a thriving commercial district, and a vibrant nightlife sparkling with renowned jazz clubs drew legendary headliners, including Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.

Nowadays, the glamorous clubs and bustling businesses are almost all gone.

Although some new smaller clubs and a cultural center stand nearby, jobs are as scarce as ever. Standing on a street corner, a quiet Allen is taking in the scene when someone howls his name.

He wheels around to see a short man in a sweat-streaked tank top and torn jeans. He warily looks him over.

"Allen?" the man yells. "You Allen, right? It's me, man. It's Shorty."

Allen languidly nods. "Hey, man." He leans forward and taps 44-year-old William "Shorty" Strand on the shoulder. The two haven't seen each other in about 20 years, not since they worked together at the same activist organization. Allen is thinking that this man with the hooded eyes and thin silver whiskers looks like a worn-down man at midlife.

"You know how it is, man," Shorty says. "I could use a few dollars."

"Don't stretch me out, Shorty," Allen says, reluctant to hand over any money, given how thin his own wallet has been stretched. He gives him two bucks anyway.

"I need some work," Shorty says, explaining that he has been doing odd jobs, lawn work and landscaping mostly. He is hanging on, but just barely. "I need a job," he repeats, more urgently.

Allen says he'll keep his ears open. As a grateful Shorty trudges off, Allen mutters, "Where's the stimulus for a guy like Shorty?"

It is a frustrated reference to the Obama administration's $800 billion stimulus package, which has awarded $11.9 billion to Illinois's public and private sectors since early 2009, according to administration statistics, and created jobs for about 3,900 Illinoisans in the last quarter alone. But not for many South Siders, Allen says.

"We haven't seen much of the stimulus trickle down to our people here," he says. "Sure, you see the signs saying that some road or construction project is being done near here with stimulus funds. But when you look at the people working on them ... you see one or two community people maybe, like the guy who holds the 'drive slowly' sign for the (drivers) passing by."

It is a common complaint among local activists and community leaders. South Side critics point to road and construction crews that are overwhelmingly white and from outside their neighborhoods. This summer, Democrat Bobby Rush, a South Side congressman probably best known for having defeated an upstart Obama in a congressional primary 12 years ago, balked at a $133 million rail project, financed in substantial part by stimulus funds, after learning that the only jobs committed to local African-Americans had stemmed from a $120,000 security contract. Even after Rush recently said that he had negotiated an agreement with the project's principal contractor on employment opportunities for South Side residents, local activists were roundly skeptical, insisting nothing had been guaranteed, as Rush had yet to release a written agreement.

Meanwhile, administration defenders point out that the stimulus law was never chiefly designed as an infrastructure program. Most of the stimulus money has gone to the kinds of initiatives principally designed to stoke consumer demand, bolster the social safety net and preserve existing jobs: tax credits for lower- and middle-income families, more public education funding, additional assistance to Medicaid.

Asked about the South Side's struggles amid the stimulus program, the White House referred to modest economic gains in the community and nationally.

"When President Obama took office, the economy was losing almost a million private sector jobs per month," said Matt Lehrich, a White House spokesman. "... While much work remains, we now have 29 straight months of private-sector job creation." The Recovery Act, Lehrich added, was "designed to have maximum economic impact and benefit those who needed it most, even if that meant folks didn't always realize the help they were getting was from the Recovery Act."

Allen views the South Side's jobless and its struggling entrepreneurs as having been overlooked.

"The president tells people, 'We're trying to ease the barriers,'" Allen says. "But I'd say to Barack: People around places like this elected you on one promise, to bring hope and change to a community like this. Look around. ... What's really changed?"

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