New Tour Explores 'Obama's New York'
Jeremiah Miller calls the time Barack Obama spent in New York "the lost years," because that period from 1981 to 1985 is not as well-known as his roots in Hawaii or his recent years in Chicago. To fill in the gap, Miller offers a tour of Upper Manhattan called "Obama's New York."
The two-hour $25 walking tour includes stops at Columbia University, a Harlem subway station, and the street where the man who now sleeps in the White House once slept in an alley.
"I became intrigued by the fact that not much is known about his life during this period, but this was a pivotal time for him," said Miller, 27, who uses proceeds from the tour to supplement his income as a struggling actor. "He was searching for himself. He felt he didn't fit in. That's why he came to New York - to find community."
Obama completed his college degree at Columbia University in 1983, having transferred there as a junior from Occidental College in Los Angeles. After college, he worked in Harlem for the New York Public Interest Research Group, a job that led to community organizing in Chicago.
Obama even opens his memoir, "Dreams from My Father," with a scene in New York. It was the day he got the news that his Kenyan father was dead. Miller pauses on a sidewalk while leading the tour to narrate that dramatic opening passage from the book, and his talents as an actor shine through as he reads aloud Obama's recollection of the phone call from a relative in Kenya:
"'Can you hear me? I say, your father is dead.' ... That was all, the line cut off, and I sat down on the couch, smelling eggs burn in the kitchen, staring at cracks in the plaster, trying to measure my loss."
Miller reads another passage from the memoir while standing on 109th Street near Amsterdam Avenue, where, Obama wrote, "I spent my first night in Manhattan curled up in an alleyway." He was supposed to stay in an apartment at 142 W. 109th St., and eventually he did move in, but nobody was home when he arrived.
Miller then takes the tour up to the gates of the Columbia campus, at 116th Street and Broadway, passing by places like Tom's Restaurant, at 112th Street and Broadway. One of Obama's roommates from those years, Phil Boerner, writing in a Columbia alumni magazine, recalled eating breakfast there with Obama. (Tom's was also famously featured on the TV show "Seinfeld" and in Suzanne Vega's song "Tom's Diner.")
After several other stops, Miller ends the tour by hopping on the No. 1 train and heading uptown to City College in Harlem. Here Obama worked for NYPIRG, organizing students on issues like recycling. He also lobbied to have the 137th Street subway station cleaned up. But Obama says in his book that he'd "all but given up on organizing" when he got an offer for a training position as an organizer in Chicago. A week later, he left New York.
Miller contends that the time Obama spent in New York put the future president on a path of activism and community service that eventually led to the White House.
"It was where Barry the boy became Barack the man," Miller said. "He may not have found his community, but he did find himself."