After a year-plus of remote events, mostly for students, the University of Chicago Institute of Politics is again welcoming the general public, and is eager to retake its place in Hyde Park's intellectual and civic life.
"On our public events, we've always drawn a lot from the community, and we want the community to know that we're open for business again," said David Axelrod, the IOP's director. "We love and appreciate them, and they add something to these public events, and we hope that we add something to the community."
Axelrod worked at the Herald as a U. of C. student before a stint covering City Hall for the Tribune; he then left journalism and entered political consulting, working on the campaigns of U.S. Sen. Paul Simon and Mayor Harold Washington.
His personal relationship with former President Barack Obama extended years before his 2008 run for the White House, for which Axelrod worked as his strategist. Axelrod eventually served as Obama's senior advisor in Washington until 2011, when he worked on the president's reelection campaign.
He founded the IOP, 5707 S. Woodlawn Ave., in 2013. Events are listed on its website, politics.uchicago.edu.
"When I was a student here, there was nothing like this," Axelrod said. "There was not a steady parade of speakers and programs. If you were interested in government or politics writ large, there was nothing here. And it's one of the reasons I became a journalist, to satisfy my interest in politics and the world around me. So I wanted to bring this back here to provide what I didn't have when I was here.
"But I also, having covered the Hyde Park community, I know how rich this community is and how interested and engaged people are here. And we wanted to be an asset to the community, not just to the university students themselves," he said, praising Hyde Parkers' for being a good audience that reliably fills seats and asks good questions.
Over the past 18 months, IOP events were accessible over YouTube, but participation was only over Zoom and limited to students. Axelrod said the institute is now mission-bound to re-engage with faithful, if dormant, community attendees.
"I think it's important for Hyde Park," he said. "I've watched it over a half-century. I think it is a special neighborhood. Part of it has to do with the university. Part of it has to do with the fact that it is a very diverse community, and you've got a lot of different voices. And that makes it a vibrant community. Yes, the university adds a lot, but not all of our patrons are university-affiliated. Hyde Park has always had a kind of buoyancy to it, of people who are very engaged in the world, very engaged in their community."
Axelrod matriculated at the U. of C. in 1972 and then lived in Hyde Park for 11 years. He moved back to the neighborhood this year, enjoying both being able to walk to work and that there is now "more going on, more restaurants, more hotels, more event venues, more 'stuff' " than when he last called it home.
"I've had a circuitous route through various places in the area," he said, "but I'm really enjoying being back."