CHICAGO — When Deval Patrick was a child, people stepped inside the Currency Exchange, on the poor side of Washington Park, because they didn't have bank accounts.
They paid fees to cash paychecks. They pushed money over a counter to cover utility bills.
On Wednesday, the former Massachusetts governor returned to this place in his old neighborhood, now called Peach's at Currency Exchange Cafe. He sat at a cluster of tables to hear 10 people outline the economic challenges residents face today — half a century after opportunity plucked a poor, studious 14-year-old from a tenement at 54th Street and South Wabash Avenue in 1970.
Today, a picture of Patrick, a late entry in the 2020 Democratic primary contest for president, sits atop the homepage of the nonprofit group A Better Chance, which was his ticket out.
"It shouldn't require going to Milton Academy to have that kind of chance," Patrick told those around the table, sharing bits of his South Side story.
[cqembed title="Untitled" content="PGlmcmFtZSB3aWR0aD0iNTYwIiBoZWlnaHQ9IjMxNSIgc3JjPSJodHRwczovL3d3dy55b3V0dWJlLmNvbS9lbWJlZC9XbWxSaGs2MHJQMCIgZnJhbWVib3JkZXI9IjAiIGFsbG93PSJhY2NlbGVyb21ldGVyOyBhdXRvcGxheTsgZW5jcnlwdGVkLW1lZGlhOyBneXJvc2NvcGU7IHBpY3R1cmUtaW4tcGljdHVyZSIgYWxsb3dmdWxsc2NyZWVuPjwvaWZyYW1lPg=="]
That childhood, he told the group, included "a lot of time on welfare" living with his mother and grandparents in a two-story brick apartment building on South Wabash. His immediate family shared use of a bunk bed.
"Every third night on the floor," he said.
He told of the seventh grade teacher, one of his neighborhood's few white educators, who encouraged him to learn and took him to see the 1965 movie "The Sound of Music."
"It was the first time anyone had helped me imagine what it would be like to be a citizen of the world," he said.
The day after the meeting, Patrick released his "Opportunity Agenda." The campaign claims that blueprint can extend prosperity "out to the middle and the marginalized, not just up to the well-connected."
The plan calls for education reform, infrastructure fixes and investment in innovation. All those topics came up Wednesday, at what one participant called Patrick's South Side "brain trust," in one of America's most marginalized neighborhoods.
Ghian Foreman, CEO of the Emerald South Economic Development Collaborative, helped assemble the roundtable and introduced Patrick.
"No kid in this neighborhood would ever believe that a governor grew up in this neighborhood," Foreman said as people arrived.
Patrick's old neighborhood, once dubbed the Black Belt, grew through the "great migration" of African Americans a century ago, at a time of racial segregation. The area struggled through transition in the 1990s, residents told Patrick, after Mayor Harold Washington left office and public housing policy used incentives to move longtime residents out.
The city of Chicago owns 3.3 million square feet of vacant lots; an additional 2 million square feet is controlled privately, leaving 40 percent of this land empty, according to Foreman.
"What was left in this neighborhood?" he asked. "Poverty. If all you've seen is a vacant lot, how do you imagine something bigger?"
The cafe sits in a Census Bureau block with a median household income of $31,938. Tracts to the south show income as low as $9,485. A mile east, near the University of Chicago, median household income is $104,301.
The Massachusetts model
Patrick arrived with two campaign aides, striding along South Prairie Avenue in a royal blue overcoat, then was joined inside by other campaign staff. He ducked into the kitchen, downed a biscuit and visited with Clifford Rome, one of the cafe's owners.
People around the table included community activists, businesspeople, a lawyer, a marketing expert and a real estate developer.
Patrick, who owns a home in Richmond, told them he planned to model his economic policies as a candidate on how he believes he helped Massachusetts climb out of the Great Recession, which landed a year after he took office in 2007.
Key to that, he said, were investments in education and the "knowledge-based economy."
"I want to acknowledge that we did not get everything right," he said of his handling of the downturn. But Patrick suggested that his approach to leading a revival worked. "Most people are not asking government to solve every problem in their lives. They just want government to do what it can to help them help themselves.
"What would you need from my administration?" he asked.
For 90 minutes, the former governor quizzed people like Aaron "Lefty" Bond, who uses basketball to help young people prone to illegal activity rewrite destructive scripts.
"Once the ball bounces, a lot of things stop," Bond told The Eagle.
An executive-style notebook spread before him on a tablecloth, Patrick turned to Tom Lambert, who runs a demolition business, and heard about the challenges of hiring.
"Are you able to get the talent you need?" Patrick asked.
"I'd love to train more," Lambert said. "There's a need."
Patrick told the group he sees too little flexibility in how federal job-training aid is used, and that should change.
Stephanie Green, a lawyer, told Patrick she sees benefits in other kinds of public investments.
"I've seen the importance that the creative arts have on young children," Green said. "Their perception of possibility and opportunity is very limited. Maybe if more children had exposure to that."
Putting pieces together
Patrick asked Torrence Cooks, who lived as a child in the now-demolished Robert Taylor Homes public housing, about how he helps steer teenagers from gang life. He broke free and thinks they can, too. Cooks supervises five counselors and is a mentor himself; together, they work with nearly 100 young people.
Studies peg Chicago as the American city with the most endemic gang activity, home to more than 100,000 members in scores of factions.
"I get a lot done, but a brick wall always happens," Cooks said. Kids need jobs, he offered.
Patrick nodded and took notes.
"I want to be sure I'm thinking about that as we put the pieces together," he said in response to one comment.
Evidence of problems kept heaping up, including government red tape and what one panelist called flawed public policy, particularly in the form of massive changes in government housing in Chicago.
"They destroyed our communities," said Carol Adams, a sociologist with South Shore Works, a community organization. "They broke up that voting bloc. All of it came to a screeching halt."
Leo Webster, who attended sixth grade with Patrick at the former Mary C. Terrell School, offered a pointed analysis of how Chicago's housing policies broke up African American communities, weakening their voting clout.
Residents lost out, he suggested.
"They did not provide adequate support services," he said. The city's shift on housing, as towers like the Robert Taylor Homes fell, dramatically changed prospects for children in a place where 80 percent of those younger than 18 lived in public housing, Webster said.
"You displaced not only individuals and families, but a generation," he said.
Asked later to share a memory of his sixth grade classmate, Webster recalled hanging out on a back porch, watching Patrick pretend to be superheroes and comic book characters.
Patrick's heroes today, the former governor told his roundtable, include not just his white teacher, but people in the neighborhood who nurtured one another.
"There were strong adults here; right here. They raised expectations for yourself. They gave me faith in the American dream in a set of circumstances where that dream was not obvious," he said. "That teaches you some things about your responsibility to your neighbor — and them for you."
Outside, across East Garfield Boulevard, Garland Gantt already had set up his piles of socks, stocking caps and blankets on folding tables at the edge of a city-owned lot.
"Call Hustleman," his business card reads. "IF YOU DON'T SEE IT ASK FOR IT."
Gantt earned his nickname at a restaurant job. That was before his entrepreneurial spirit colonized this spot near a busy Chicago Transit Authority station almost 20 years ago. He likes the location in part because the coming and going helps ward off street crime.
A six-pack of socks goes for $5. He has done well enough to buy a house.
"I'm not rich, but that's beside the point," Gantt said. "I'm not asking nobody for nothing."
Gantt and a string of customers shared thoughts on how a U.S. president, any U.S. president, can provide opportunity in their neighborhood.
None had heard of Patrick, who left his home, a few blocks west, before some of them were born.
Everyone who agreed to be interviewed about Patrick's candidacy, at Hustleman's and around the neighborhood, said the lack of jobs holds everyone back and is a factor in the area's high crime rate. They want opportunities for young people.
A man waiting by a bus stop edges over to share a joke. "Did you hear about the snail?" he asks. "He got robbed by the turtle. It all happened so fast."
Crime has been rising in Chicago's toughest neighborhoods, after a decline at the century's start. In 2018, 727 violent crimes were reported in the Washington Park neighborhood where Patrick grew up, making it the fourth-most-dangerous police district in the city, based on incidents per capita. The number of aggravated assaults rose that year to 251, up 8.37 percent from 2017, according to Chicago Police Department data. Ten homicides and 19 rapes were reported in 2018.
"This neighborhood ain't as bad as people think it is," said Kobe Jones, stopping at the back of Gantt's open utility truck to buy a half-dozen Newports. Gantt cracked open a fresh pack, standing beside the rig he uses to warm hot dogs and make nachos for customers. Power flowed from a generator set up as far from the truck as a cord allowed.
Jones was shown a statement from Patrick's campaign about the roundtable meeting across the street that afternoon. He watches "Meet the Press" and follows politics.
"First of all, they need to put some jobs down here," he said of politicians, citing too few opportunities for teens.
"If you give them something to do, it keeps them off the streets. The first time they earn a paycheck, they're going to love it," Jones said. "It's a lovely feeling."
Jones knows that feeling, but said he only works occasionally himself, at age 48.
Tony Smith stopped to buy two bags of chips.
"I would say something for the youth," he said, when asked to name his own opportunity agenda. "Instead of roaming out here on the streets. And some jobs. That probably would cut the crime rate down a bit. Teach them a trade, something they can do with their hands."
Victoria Edwards was getting into her car near her apartment on South Wabash, a few blocks south of where Patrick lived half a century ago.
"The police need to help with the crime rate," she said, when asked what government can do for where she lives.
"It's gotten better. Still not what it should be. Somebody just got shot here a week ago," she said. She pointed down 54th Street toward South Michigan Avenue. "On that corner, I believe."
A few blocks past that lies Lorraine Hansberry Park, named for the author of "A Raisin in the Sun," whose family battled housing segregation here in the 1930s.
Are there enough jobs?
Edwards looked out her car window.
A man who declined to give his name drained a Pepsi can and tossed it on littered ground.
"People need to work," he said. How else are they going to survive? That's common sense. People look at you differently because of the neighborhood you're living in."
The man said he has lost faith in politics and politicians. "It's hard to vote for somebody who's not helping you."
Maurice Jefferson, 40, came around the corner from South State Street carrying a small gray backpack. Jefferson, his father and two brothers all receive Social Security disability checks. He paused to talk by a sagging chain-link fence and a sign advertising a way — improbable, it seemed — to recoup a tax credit worth $4,861.
"I'm doing the best I can," Jefferson said, when asked how he makes ends meet. What can a president do to lift this neighborhood? Like others, he thought of young people.
"If they had jobs, they wouldn't be out here selling drugs," he said.
On the trail
After the meeting, Patrick paused by the cafe's long wooden counter to talk with a Chicago Tribune reporter. Rick Pearson asked him about the campaign, including whether he thought U.S. Sen. Cory Booker's exit opened space for his candidacy. Patrick, now the only African American seeking the Democratic nomination, said he wasn't sure.
"Look, it will be an advantage if people understand that we are not taking anyone or anything for granted," he told Pearson. "That's the reason why I spend the time I do here in conversations like this and in conversations like this in South Carolina and New Hampshire as well."
Patrick then climbed into the front seat of a black SUV parked out front, joined by three aides.
Patrick needed to get, and fast, to a fundraiser downtown and to make a call or two along the way. But, he paused to stand for a photo in front of his childhood home on a South Wabash Avenue block that the city designated "Deval Patrick Way" in 2013. (A brown street sign reads "Honorary Governor Deval Patrick Av.")
A report posted Thursday in Politico said Patrick's fundraiser that evening at The Chicago Club attracted 60 people and was led by Marty Nesbitt, president of the Obama Foundation, and his spouse.
"It was a who's who in attendance," wrote Shia Kapos. "We hear Patrick endeared himself to the crowd with self-deprecating humor, telling guests that if they heard his wife, Diane, speak, they'd wonder why she wasn't running."
On Thursday, Patrick traveled to Southern California, then visited Nevada on Friday. Late in the week, he dropped a plan to join a candidate forum in Iowa on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, opting instead to spend the long weekend in South Carolina, which holds its primary Feb. 29. He and a half-dozen rivals, including Sens. Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, are scheduled to speak Monday at the state NAACP chapter's King Day Rally.
Back at the Chicago cafe, Patrick told the roundtable he entered the presidential race a year later than expected, due to a uterine cancer diagnosis for his wife. But, in late fall, he explained, a medical report cleared her of cancer, and Patrick was back in.
The campaign is writing off the Iowa caucuses due to Patrick's late entry, and is focusing on primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina. Patrick said he sees a "strategic pathway to Super Tuesday." That is the day, March 3 this year, when 14 states, including Massachusetts, hold primaries or caucuses.
"We felt we were at risk of missing a moment," he said of his decision to enter the race. "Believing there was a lane, we stepped out."
Larry Parnass can be reached at email@example.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-588-8341.