President Obama speaks at Hyde Park Academy in Chicago, where he emphasized… (Zbigniew Bzdak, Chicago…)
CHICAGO — President Obama returned home Friday to a city shaken by the gun violence he has sworn to curb, delivering a call for communities to "fill the hole" in the hearts of troubled young people and work together to rise out of poverty.
Although Obama is pushing gun control measures in Congress, he made few references to his legislative goals as he spoke to an audience at a high school on Chicago's South Side. Instead, he focused heavily on the role of communities and parenting in preventing violence.
"For a lot of young boys and young men in particular, they don't see an example of fathers or grandfathers, uncles, who are in a position to support families and be held up in respect," Obama said. "And so that means that this is not just a gun issue; it's also an issue of the kinds of communities that we're building."
The emphasis was notable for a president who has rarely waded publicly into the politically perilous waters of urban politics, race and poverty. Obama often aims to be seen as a broader figure, has focused much of his economic message at the middle class, and spends much of his time campaigning outside city centers. Despite his recent emphasis on gun violence, he had, until now, notably not inserted himself into the scourge of violent crime in his hometown, a city now run by his former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel.
In deciding to return to Chicago after a spate of murders, the newly reelected president made it clear that he would not avoid such issues.
In recent weeks, many here have called on him to come to Chicago to speak about gun-related violence, much as he did after the massacre in Newtown, Conn. The pressure mounted after the death of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, who was shot shortly after returning home from his inaugural celebrations in Washington.
Obama responded Friday by declaring that "what happened to Hadiya is not unique."
"It's not unique to Chicago. It's not unique to this country. Too many of our children are being taken away from us," Obama said, adding that the homicide tally in the city last year was "the equivalent of a Newtown every four months."
The high school gym in which Obama spoke is in an area loaded with symbolic resonance and personal history. Hyde Park Academy is in the neighborhood the president represented as a state senator less than a decade ago. It is less than half a mile from the stately home he still owns and rarely visits, and is just a few miles from where Pendleton was killed.
Obama greeted the largely African American crowd warmly. "Have a seat. You all relax. It's just me. You all know me," he said.
He spoke of raising his daughters in the neighborhood and meeting his wife, Michelle, here. He noted his work as a community organizer. And he touched on his upbringing by a single mom, declaring that he, too, had gotten into trouble as a teenager.
"I wish I had had a father who was around and involved," he said.
Addressing a group of teenagers in an anti-violence program, Obama said he could relate to their troubles. He had a safety net that kept him from getting into too much trouble, Obama said. "But you guys are no different than me," he added.
The White House emphasized that Obama's visit was not merely about gun violence, and he arrived touting an economic agenda filled with proposals aimed at the urban working poor.
The plan included an effort to funnel federal money, resources, private investment and tax credits to "promise zones" — the 20 communities hit worst by the recession, the White House said.
Obama announced a new competition for high schools — using federal money to encourage schools to emphasize science, technology and "real world" learning.
The proposal built on other major initiatives Obama announced on Tuesday in his State of the Union speech, including raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 and expanding access to public preschools. Both ideas drew quick criticism from Republicans in Congress, who are unlikely to go along with Obama's plans.
The outline won praise from some experts who noted a new interest in the troubles of urban areas, although the size and scope of such efforts pale in comparison with the problem.
"There's certainly a new energy and new verbal emphasis," said Brett Theodos, a senior researcher at the Urban Institute, a policy think tank in Washington. "That said, the amount of actual budgetary resources devoted to these efforts is more akin to demonstration efforts or target trials."
Still, hopes in Chicago were high.
"When he comes, his administration comes behind him," said the Rev. Michael Pfleger, pastor of St. Sabina Catholic Church, who was in the audience.
"Aurora, Tucson, Connecticut is not urban America," Pfleger said. "This is saying we're recognizing in America what we've been ignoring for a long time. The primary victim of violence in this country has been black and brown, and America has ignored it. So now he's putting the attention on it."
Chicago Tribune staff writer John Byrne contributed to this report.