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As city waits for ex-president's library, luster of Obama tourist sites fades

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 5/16/2018 Morgan Greene

a person standing in a room © Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune On a sunny Wednesday afternoon, there were no tourists walking through the doors of the Hyde Park Hair Salon, where Barack Obama regularly got his signature cut before he became president. Two regulars seated at the Obama table at Valois Restaurant were going about their business. And at the end of the Kenwood block the Obamas once called home, there was little sign of security — save for the concrete barricades.

No one in the neighborhood seemed to know Obama was in town, only a neighborhood away at the Stony Island Arts Bank to greet his first class of Obama Foundation fellows.

Locals said they’ll always be proud that the Kenwood and Hyde Park neighborhoods were home to America’s first black president. But with Obama out of office, they’ve seen the tourist draw to his old haunts fade. Some are hoping the excitement picks back up when the Obama Presidential Center goes up nearby.

At the Hyde Park Hair Salon, with its signed Obama chair, Ojo Patterson was in the middle of a cut, a few chairs over from the glass-encased display.

Patterson, who has worked at the shop for more than two years, said “a little bit more than a few” people still come in each week inquiring about the former president, wanting to take pictures by the chair or asking if Obama’s barber still gets flown out for regular cuts.

Although Patterson has never met Obama, he said he wouldn’t be star-struck if the former president walked in today.

“I could see Michael Jackson or Elvis Presley and I’d say, ‘Hey, what’s up,’” Patterson said.

Keon Dozier was at the barbershop Wednesday for his 3-year-old son’s haircut.

“I’ve never seen him in person,” Dozier said of Obama. “But just to know he stepped foot in here, it’s an amazing feeling.”

Just around the corner from the barbershop is a rock and plaque commemorating the first kiss between the former president and former first lady Michelle Obama — shared over Baskin-Robbins ice cream at a strip mall in the summer of 1989.

That Baskin-Robbins is now a Subway, but another Baskin-Robbins — part of a Dunkin’ Donuts combo — occupies the opposite end of the strip.

Herbert Hardwick was enjoying a cup of coffee and looking out at the parking lot. He said he’s spent time in the area since 1971.

Hardwick said people used to sit on the ledge right outside of the present-day Subway when the old Baskin-Robbins would fill up. He likes to think that’s where the Obamas would have sat.

“That rock is a lie,” he said. “Can you imagine the two of them squatting down on that curb?”

And yet, the inscription from an O, The Oprah Magazine interview remains on the rock: “On our first date, I treated her to the finest ice cream Baskin-Robbins had to offer, our dinner table doubling as the curb. I kissed her, and it tasted like chocolate.”

A few blocks down at Valois, where a young Obama once hosted community meetings, manager Gianni Colamussi served up cafeteria comfort food to regulars — and still fields questions about the former president from people who come from all over the world.

Colamussi, who helped orchestrate Obama’s final in-office interview filmed at the restaurant, said he’s become skilled at spotting out-of-towners.

“You can tell because they sit there and analyze the Obama menu,” he said while taking a break from the lunch rush.

On Inauguration Day, the #1 on the Obama’s Favorites menu — NY Steak and Eggs — was offered for only $5, and hundreds of orders were served.

That appetite for all things Obama hasn’t been seen at the restaurant in some time.

“We used to get 20 to 30 people a day,” Colamussi said. “Now it’s cut down.”

A few minutes away from the bustling 53rd Street sites, the Greenwood Avenue block with Obama’s Chicago home is quiet. On Wednesday, a photographer and reporter were able to walk right up to the barricades — and a bit past.

Colamussi said he’s interested to see if the Obama center will bring back some of the past excitement to sites that shaped a president who’s been responsible for some of the more surreal moments of his life.

“The library is going to be an interesting thing to see,” he said.

mgreene@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @morgreene


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