The Chicagoist will be launching later but in the meantime please enjoy our archives.

Obama Explains Chicago's Charm In 1985 Letter

By Samantha Abernethy in News on Oct 5, 2012 5:00PM

An excerpt from a letter from Barack Obama to friend Phil Boerner in 1985, as published by PBS.

In 1985, community organizer Barack Obama lived "in mortal fear of Chicago winters," as he wrote in this letter to a friend in New York City. PBS published this letter written by 24-year-old Barack Obama, dated Nov. 20, 1985, as part of its “The Artifacts of Character" series of rare glimpses at Obama and Mitt Romney's histories. Obama offers a vivid description of Chicago's racial and economic climate, in a city with a black mayor and a white City Council.

Other local artifacts from the PBS series include a glimpse at state Sen. Obama's office Springfield, which featured a framed picture of the late Mayor Harold Washington; audio of Obama from Chicago in 1994 as he discussed activism; the legislative redistricting map Obama proposed in 2001; a University of Chicago student's notes from Professor Obama's 1997 constitutional law course; Obama's poor debate performance against Rep. Bobby Rush in 2000.

The handwritten piece is available on the PBS website, embedded here. We've transcribed it below, in case any of you have forgotten cursive.

[Via Huff Post Chicago]

Here is our transcription of Obama's letter. As wordsmiths, we must note he made few grammatical errors, but we were disappointed by the absence of a few apostrophes.


My humblest apologies for the lack of communications these past months. Work has taken up much of my time, and the free margins I devoted mostly to catching my breath. Things have begun to settle into coherence of late, however, so hopefully you'll be hearing more from me in the future.

Now, what's your excuse?

Chicago — a handsome town, wide streets, lush parks, broad lovingly crafted buildings, Lake Michigan forming its whole East side, as big and mutable as an ocean. Though its a big city with big city problems, the scale and impact of the place is nothing like NY, mainly because of its dispersion, lack of congestion. Imagine Manhattan shrunk by half, then merged with the boroughs into a single stretch of land, and you've got some idea of what its like. Five minutes drive out of the Loop (the downtown area) and your in the middle of single story frame houses with backyards and tall elms.

The lay-out influences the people here. They're not as uptight, neurotic, as Manhattanites, but also less they're also not as quick on the pick-up. You still see country in a lot of folks' ways — the secretary in a skyscraper office still has the expression of a farm girl; the sound of crickets in a hot Southern night list just below the surface of the young black girls words at a check-out counter. Chicago's also a town of neighborhoods, and to a much greater degree than NY, the various tribes remain discrete, within their own turf, carving out the various neighborhoods and replicating the feel of their native land. The You can go to the Polish section of town and not hear a word of English spoken; walk along the Indian section of town, colorful as a bazaar, and you'd swear you might be in a section of New Delhi.

Of course, the most pertinent division here is that between the black tribe and the white tribe. The friction doesn't appear to be any greater than in NY, but its more manifest since there's a black mayor in power and a white City Council. And the races are spatially very separate; where I work in the South Side, you go ten miles in any direction and will not see a single white face. There are exceptions — I live in Hyde Park, near the Univ. of Chicago, which maintains a nice mix thanks to the heavy-handed influence of the University. But generally the dictum holds fast — separate and unequal.

I work in five different neighborhoods of differing economic conditions. In one neighborhood, I'll be meeting with a group of irate homeowners, working-class folks, bus drivers and nurses and clerical administrators, whose section of town has been ignored by the Dept. of Streets and Sanitation since the whites moved out twenty years ago. In another, I'll be trying to bring together a group of welfare mothers, mothers at 15, grandmothers at 30, great-grandmothers at 45, trying to help them win better job-training and day care facilities from the State. In either situation, I walk into a room and make promises I hope they can help me keep. They generally trust me, despite the fact that they've seen earnest young men pass through here before, expecting to change the world and eventually succumbing to the lure of a corporate office. And in a short time I've learned to care for them very much and want to do everything I can for them. It's tough, though. Lots of driving, lots of hours on the phone trying to break through lethargy, lots of dull meetings. Lots of frustration when you see a 43% drop out rate in the public schools and don't know where to begin denting that figure. But about 5% of the time, you see something happen — a shy housewife standing up to a bumbling official, or the sudden sounds of hope in the voice of a grizzled old man — that gives a hint of the possibilities, of people taking hold of their lives, working together to bring about a small justice. And its that possibility that keeps you going through all the trenchwork.

Two other guys on staff, both white, in their late thirties, do the same thing in the white suburbs. What draws the two areas together is a devastated economy — the area use to be the biggest steel producer in the US, and now closed down mills lie blanched and still as dinosaur fossils. We've been talking to some key unions about the possibility of working with them to keep the last major mill open; but its owned by LTV, a Dallas-based conglomerate that wants to close as soon as possible to garner the tax loss.

Aside from that, not much news to report. My apartment is a comfortable studio near the Lake (rents are about half of those in Manhattan). Since I work often work at night, I usually reserve the mornings to myself for running, reading and writing. I've enclosed a first-draft of a short story I just finished; if you have the patience, jot some criticism on it, let George mark it up, and send it back to me as soon as possible, along with some of the things you guys may have written.

Its getting cooler, and I live in mortal fear of Chicago winters. Hows the weather over there? I miss NY and the people in it — the subways, the feel of Manhattan streets, the view downtown from the Brooklyn Bridge. I hope everything goes well with you, give my love to Karen, George, Paul, and anyone else I know.

Love —

Address: [redacted]
Chicago, IL 60615
Phone: [redacted]

P.S. I will be in Wash D.C from Dec. 20-24 to visit a brother whose moved there. If you'll be in D.C to visit your folks, then we can get together. My brother's name is Roy Obama, his [redacted]. Try to writeback to me in Chicago before then so we can make possible arrangements.

P.P.S. I work with churches a lot in the black community, which may explain context of story.