Fifty-Second Street, in West Philadelphia, could easily be a Hollywood backlot stand-in for any depressed inner-city strip in the country. There are signs on streetlamps that advertise shared van service rides to visiting hours at distant state prisons. The awning of the deli announces that the store accepts food stamps and also sells wigs. There’s a tax-refund joint, of course, and it’s even collocated with a McDonald’s. This afternoon, though, the streetscape features some less familiar pieces of vernacular decoration: Billowing American flags. Red, white, and blue patterns adorn T-shirts and flutter on handheld banners and frame the stage assembled in front of the boarded-up old beaux-arts movie house at the corner of Locust Street. “This is a day us people--you know, Afro American people, black people, my people, we’ve been waiting for for a very long time,” says Henry Rodgers, who has lived two blocks off the strip since 1963. “People are so happy.”
Rodgers is talking about the prospect of the first African-American president, but locals more narrowly focused on the 2008 prospects of Barack Obama have been waiting, too. During the general-election season, Obama hasn’t spent much time working heavily black neighborhoods like this one, where he’s the overwhelming choice of voters. Thus his stop here also marks something of an anomaly in a campaign whose current travel plans are more likely to include the swing districts where voters could still break either way come November. That’s not 52nd Street, where the crowd pretty much embodies Paul Begala’s derisive primary-season dismissal of Obama’s base as nothing but “eggheads and African Americans.” The adjacent blocks are overwhelmingly black, but enough people have come the mile or so from the liberal white neighborhoods around the University of Pennsylvania that I have to bike three blocks in the wrong direction before I find a street sign or parking meter to lock my bicycle to. The others are already occupied.
Obama is due just after 1 p.m. The mood in the long lines to get into the five blocks in front of the stage is the precise opposite of the surly scenes outside GOP rallies that have made the rounds on YouTube over the past week. It’s hard to get anyone to say a nasty word about anything. References to John McCain are conspicuously absent from signs and buttons and sidewalk conversation. “Look how beautiful this is,” says Elsa Waldman, 26, a midwife, whose poodle is clad in an Obama shirt. “There’s babies, old people, people in wheelchairs. Historically, us young people don’t get and vote. It’s so exciting.” This is what it feels like when your candidate is running downhill: You get to babble about excitement, and not about conspiracies involving opposing candidates’ religious backgrounds or voter-registration tactics.
Inside the rally, even the arrival of the press bus sets off a cheer in the crowd. Sure, most people assumed it was Obama arriving. But one of the reporters tells me the bus got the finger from a crowd at a McCain rally in Wisconsin yesterday. Through the weird prism of election-year October, a beaten-down inner-city corner seems sunnier and happier and less alienated than the rural Midwest. The residents of 52nd and Locust are listening--it gets played from the PA system twice during the gathering--to a patriotic tune by Brooks and Dunn.
Obama, of course, isn’t the first pol to bring his campaign to the neighborhood. JFK wasn’t far away in 1960, though that was a few demographic transitions ago. A retired schoolteacher named Arcenia McClendon tells me that Bill Clinton once made an appearance at Big George’s Stop & Dine. McClendon says the block was cleaned up in advance of Clinton’s visit, while it’s been kept as-is today. Instead, the biggest visual difference this time is the T-shirts. Obama’s campaign has touched off its own cottage industry of non-official T-shirts. There are bright yellow shirts featuring pictures of Barack and Michelle; extra-large sized shirts reading “Yes, We Can,” with the lyrics to the eponymous song imprinted on the back; shirts with joint pictures of both Obama with MLK and Obama with Bruce Springsteen. My favorite is the one with the candidate’s name written in the gothic font used in Tupac Shakur’s “Thug Life” tattoo. McClendon has her own shirt featuring the slogan “Passing Hope to the Next Generation” above an image of Obama superimposed next to a woman I can’t quite place. Who’s the woman? “It’s me!” says McClendon, who made the shirt herself, running an iron-on decal through a computer printer. “I’m 70 years old and it took me 70 years to cast a vote with true honesty and justice. And that’s what I’m passing to all you young people.”
After all the buildup, Obama himself seems a bit of a let down. He’s introduced by two congressmen and a governor and a mayor who shouts himself hoarse, yet he mainly delivers just a standard stump speech: A riff on preexisting conditions here, some middle-class tax cut wonkery there, a nod to infrastructure investment over there. The digs at McCain are there (he doesn’t get it; he’s been stealing my change slogans, etc.) but the ensuing boos are not quite bloodthirsty. When Obama stops to praise McCain for reining in his rhetoric over the past day, someone shouts out “too late,” but most people cheer. And then, with the flags still flapping, it’s on to a final bit that wraps all of the historical significance and identity-politics pride--the stuff that gets played up on 52nd Street and played down in a lot of other neighborhoods--into a patriotic package that could work just about anywhere, a national history of perpetual improvement: “That’s the story of America. Each successive generation working hard. I’m here because somebody somewhere stood up for me. And because they stood up, a few more stood up. And then a few thousand stood up. And then a few million stood up. And because they stood up, America became a place where dreams were realized.”
The crowd eats it up, with all the attendant cheers and sobs and exultations. The music comes on and the other pols flank Obama as he basks in the applause. As the audience files away, a retiree named Edith MacDonald stays put in her seat. “This is just such a happy place,” she says, watching the crowd stream past. Brooks and Dunn’s “Only in America” is playing again, and McDonald shouts over it to tell me that she’s the last one left from her generation, born in South Carolina before migrating north. “I told my family, God left me here for a reason,” she says. “So when I go up to heaven and see my family, I tell them” that the country had a black president.
Michael Schaffer is the author of the upcoming One Nation Under Dog.