Chicago cheers adopted son Obama as he returns for farewell speech as president

Chicago cheers adopted son Obama as he returns for farewell speech as president

Many Chicagoans swell with pride for Barack Obama, whose life and work were enshrined as the best of the south side long before his last presidential address

Zariff can remember cutting Barack Obamas hair for his breakthrough speech at the Democratic national convention address in 2004. I cut it real short for that one, the barber said. He went from medium to short. I thought it should be different.

On Tuesday, Obama will again sit calmly as Zariff, his personal hairdresser for more than two decades, prepares him to walk out before an ecstatic, expectant crowd. This time it will be to deliver his last address as US president. He will reflect on what he got done, what went undone, and what a Donald Trump future portends for America and the world.

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Hopes are high that he has one more great speech left in him.

Unlike Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton or George W Bush, Obama has opted to give his farewell address not in the White House but in his adopted home. Chicago, Americas third biggest city, is guaranteed to give the president an adoring, raucous, never-let-me-go sendoff.

Such is the strength of feeling for Obama here he will always be Chicagos president, a city newspaper headline declared last week that competition for seats at the primetime event rivalled that for the Broadway musical Hamilton. Swaddled in heavy winter coats, hats and gloves, people queued in the freezing cold from 4.30am on Saturday for one of the 7,000 free tickets some of which are now being sold for thousands of dollars online.

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People wait in line for tickets to Barack Obamas farewell address in Chicago, most for two or more hours in subzero wind chill temperatures. Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images

One man certain to be in attendance is Zariff who declined to give his full name or age who works at the Hyde Park Hair Salon in Obamas home neighbourhood. Although the shop changed premises a few years ago, it has its most famous patrons regular chair on prominent display, autographed and behind protective glass, along with photos, newspaper cuttings and even a painting, almost like a shrine.

Zariff said he can recall very vividly the first time the young lawyer and community organiser walked in. He never dreamed Obama could be president. But then came the convention in Boston in 2004. Thats when I knew it was possible, he reflected. A very bright, very sharp, very focused individual outside the guy who told jokes all the time.

Zariff, who is African American, cut Obamas hair again before his acceptance speech in Grant Park, Chicago, on the night in 2008 he became the first black president in US history. He had to look his best. It was a very special feeling of watching something come to fruition from the beginning.

Since then Zariff has made regular trips to the White House to ensure Obama does not have a hair out of place. When you find a good barber, you hang with him, he explained cheerfully. Its important for a world leader to keep his look consistent.

Tuesday nights speech will evoke a heap of memories, Zariff added. I will go back all the way to the first time he walked in the door, to the time of Illinois senator, to the time of senator, to the time of president: all this I will think about. Hes still standing upright, confident, and looking to the future.

Chicago is booming by some measures but grappling with a soaring murder rate, persistent racial segregation and, last week, a shocking Facebook Live broadcast that apparently showed a person with disabilities being bound, gagged and beaten.

Tim Samuelson, the citys official cultural historian, said: So much of Barack Obamas formative years were in doing public activism here in Chicago. The challenge of urban life in the city became an environment that shaped him.

Chicago is the newcomer city in the US and grew up almost overnight. Its always been concerned about how people regarded it. Its made its mark in many ways, including culturally and artistically, but certainly the presidency of Barack Obama is going to be the most lasting and memorable achievement.

Obama was born in Hawaii and spent part of his childhood in Indonesia but later moved to Chicagos south side, which he regards as home. It is where he met his future wife, Michelle Robinson, taught at university, started as a community organiser and has chosen for his presidential library. Today in the Hyde Park neighbourhood there are signs of affection, physical and emotional, for the local hero.

Outside a mundane strip mall, a 3,000lb lump of granite sits in a flower bed, embedded with a plaque. On this site, President Barack Obama first kissed Michelle Obama, it proclaims. For good measure, it includes a quote from Obama:

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 plaque marking the location where Barack and Michelle Obama shared their first kiss in 1989 in Hyde Park, Chicago. Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Baskin-Robbins has moved to a new location a few doors away. Standing behind a bank of ice cream on a cold day, cashier Bianca Smith, 29, expressed a sentiment true for many here: sorrow at Obamas departure and trepidation at what is to come. I wish he could run again for president. Trump just dont have any experience, especially campaign experience. He cant run his own damned hotel and now hes going to run the world? Im kind of nervous.

Down the street is Valois, a restaurant that opened in 1921, another favourite Obama haunt. Today it has a menu poster that proclaims, President Obamas favorites, including NY steak and eggs for $9.95 and two pancakes for $6.25. More photos adorn the walls. Sitting at the window on Monday was Herb Robinson, a property investor, wearing a shirt that combined four Chicago sports teams.

Robinson, 65, who worked on Obamas first campaign and was among the 240,000 people in Grant Park on election night, met the president at Valois. He has an excellent memory and he remembered me from when I was campaigning for him, he said. People here wish he could stay, but he served two terms and thats the most a president can serve.

But Robinson, too, is wary of the next president. I dont think very highly of him. Hes a big liar, an exaggerator. America is definitely going to make a change for the worse. I dont trust him. I dont believe a word he says. Full of shit. It amazed me how he got in.

Below street level, the low-ceilinged 57th Street Books, meanwhile, is where Obama launched his two books. For the first, Dreams from My Father (1995), only about half a dozen people turned up, according to urban legend. For the second, The Audacity of Hope, the crowd was more substantial.

The shop is part of Seminary Co-op Bookstores, of which Obama has been a member since the 1980s. Its director, Jeff Deutsch, will be at the speech on Tuesday night. There are a couple of different Chicagos, he said. What Obama means to history is the best of the south side: a wonderfully diverse community that has deep roots and cares about ideas, justice, empathy, compassion. Hes been incredibly inclusive and thats been part of this community as well.

At Medici, a restaurant with faux medieval decor that encourages customers to write graffiti, one section of wall has been framed behind glass: it is signed, Malia Obama with a heart. The family used to dine here but not all todays patrons are fans. Diner Joel Smith, 65, a retired engineer, will not be watching the farewell address. Im glad hes gone, he said. It was eight years of nothing.

Jobs have gone abroad, the countrys in a sad state militarily and hes promulgated all sorts of antisemitic policies. Why do you think Trump got elected? Now Obamas going to build a library in the park, so he can still rule and people will kiss his ring.

Strictly speaking, however, Obama will go back to what he was: a citizen.

Jon Arnold, 57, a journalist and historian, recalled a sighting in Hyde Park long before the world had heard the name Barack Obama. He was standing with a clipboard petitioning to be state senator. I said, There goes another sleazy politician wholl never get anywhere.

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