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Why a plaque is enough to honor Obama for now

A plaque marks the Pasadena apartment building where Barack Obama lived while attending Occidental College.
A plaque marks the Pasadena apartment building where Barack Obama lived while attending Occidental College. The Associated Press

I recently learned that in the second grade, I was part of presidential history.

Every morning during the 1980-81 school year, I walked the five blocks between my family’s home in Pasadena and Allendale Elementary School. In the evening, I went back to play Little League at a park next to the school.

The round trip seemed unremarkable then. But last month, the city installed a plaque on the sidewalk outside an apartment building I used to pass on my way. The plaque says an Occidental College sophomore lived there in 1980 and 1981. His name was Barack Obama.

This revelation – that the president of the United States was once my neighbor – might seem trivial. But it has made news all over California. And now my own state senator, Anthony Portantino, wants to rename a portion of Highway 134, connecting Pasadena with Glendale, the “President Barack H. Obama Freeway.”

I still live less than two miles from Obama’s old apartment, and I stopped a half dozen times to see the plaque over the holidays. The draw is some combination of childhood nostalgia and the deliciously incongruous updating of the president-from-a-log-cabin story. I’m never alone; there always seem to be other curious locals outside the apartment building.

Still, I confess I find the plaque embarrassing in an “Aren’t we behaving like small-town hicks?” way. Obama, after all, left us as fast as he could, transferring from Occidental to Columbia University in New York City after his sophomore year.

So why is my hometown holding tightly to such a thin presidential connection?

There’s our strong commitment to celebrating African American history in a city with one of California’s oldest African American communities. It’s also understandable that Californians are clinging to a president for whom we voted twice, particularly as we confront a president-elect some see as a threat to the republic.

There are already two schools named for Obama in Los Angeles and another in Oakland. Seaside gave its Broadway Avenue a second name – Obama Way – six years ago. And scientific researchers even named a lichen they discovered in the Channel Islands after the president (Caloplaca obamae).

Such celebrations seem excessive because the president hasn’t reciprocated them. Obama came to our state mostly to raise money and play golf. He attacked Silicon Valley for not collaborating on mass surveillance. He turned down our requests for financial aid that would have prevented the worst state budget cuts. And he deported an awful lot of our undocumented neighbors.

At the very least, high honors for this president are premature. It’s always dangerous to name things after living people, and he is just 55 years old with potentially decades to ruin his reputation. So why not hold off on renaming more schools or roads for him?

I feel differently about the sidewalk plaque in my old neighborhood. Yes, the plaque is hokey. And yes, if you have friends from Pasadena, you will have to put up with our bragging that Obama was our homie. But let’s swallow our pride, keep the plaque, and have T-shirts made. It’s a sweet little reminder that sometimes history is hiding just around the corner, living in a shabby apartment.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at joe@zocalopublicsquare.org.

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