Chicago betting on Obama center to bring hope to South Side

Residents of Woodlawn learn about plans for the Obama Presidential Center, due to be finished in 2021.

Chicago’s South Side, an area with a reputation for rampant gun violence, decaying neighborhoods, and high unemployment, will soon get a $500 million shot in the arm in the form of the Obama Presidential Center.

The new center in Jackson Park is being described as a “monument to the future.” The 500-acre Jackson Park is between the neighborhoods of Woodlawn and Hyde Park, where the Obamas own a home. It sits on the edge of the University of Chicago and the Museum of Science and Industry, the lone building left from the 1893 World’s Fair, the Columbian Exposition.

“Hopefully, it’s a hub where all of us can see a brighter future for the South Side,” former President Barack Obama said at the unveiling of the center’s design.

The city is counting on the new center to jump-start nearby neighborhoods. The new center, with its museum, forum, and library surrounding a public plaza, is predicted to create some 1,200 construction jobs and up to 300 permanent jobs.

But that’s only the beginning. The Obama Foundation says the center will “strengthen the economic climate of the community by bringing hundreds of thousands of visitors to the South Side every year, creating new jobs and opportunities on the South Side, and revitalizing historic Jackson Park.” The University of Chicago predicts that the surrounding neighborhood could add about 2,000 permanent jobs overall and that the center could mean an annual revenue boost of $220 million for the city. The university projects that about 800,000 visitors will visit the library and museum annually.

The first jobs installment will come in the form of a $2 million donation from the Obamas themselves to summer jobs programs in Chicago that aim to provide apprenticeship job training and summer work for at-risk youth.

In all, the new center will be an investment in the community, not just a set of buildings.

As Chicago Tribune columnist Dahleen Glanton wrote:

The Obama Presidential Center, unlike some other presidential libraries, would not be a tribute to the accomplishments of the first African-American in the White House; it would be an institution for training the Barack Obamas and Michelle Obamas of the future.

Of course, the museum will house things like Michelle Obama’s ball gowns and artifacts from his presidency. These are the kinds of things that will draw visitors from around the world. But Obama made it clear that the mission and the bulk of the programs will benefit young people like those who live nearby.

It will be a center where the community feels at home, a place where families can come with their children and spend an afternoon on the playground. It will have an auditorium for concerts, lectures and performances.

The neighborhoods surrounding the site of the new center have a storied history. The populace of Woodlawn changed from being predominantly white to being predominantly African-American by the early 1960s (playwright Lorraine Hansberry used her family’s experience of moving into Woodlawn as the basis for Raisin in the Sun). Other notable residents have included poet Gwendolyn Brooks, sports legends Joe Louis and Jesse Owens, and jazz great Herbie Hancock.

In the past, Woodlawn also was home to some of Chicago’s worst street gangs, such as the Black P. Stone Nation, which became the notorious El Rukns. Its overall crime rate is still 78 percent higher than the national average. But Woodlawn has seen some revitalization in recent years; its unemployment rate of 17.3 percent is actually lower than some surrounding neighborhoods, which are 25 percent and higher.

There are great hopes that the new center will offer change. The Obamas want the center to be a living thing, not a building that “kids are being dragged to for a field trip,” the former president said. “What we wanted was something that was alive and that was a hub for activity for the community and for the city and for the country.”

A model of the planned Obama Presidential Center, with plenty of green space.

Here are just some of the amenities and projects being proposed by the 44th president for the new center and its surrounding campus:

  • A recording studio.
  • A movie studio.
  • A sledding hill, something that Michelle Obama always wanted but apparently never experienced on Chicago’s flat landscape.
  • A live concert venue.
  • A griller’s paradise. Jackson Park is already hugely popular for cookouts, and Obama was adamant that he didn’t want that to change. (Try to find a parking place in Jackson Park on a summer weekend — it’s nearly impossible.)
  • A collection of Michelle Obama’s fashions. (“Let’s face it, you all want to see Michelle’s dresses,” Obama joked at the unveiling of the center’s design.)
  • Paddleboats, bike trails, and food trucks along the 39-acre Jackson Park Lagoon to the east.
  • A new branch of the Chicago Public Library.
  • A new field house. (“We will have basketball,” Obama promised.)
  • Expansive community gardens. There will be rooftop gardens on the Obama library, a public garden, and more. Woodlawn is already a growing area of urban gardens run as expanding businesses.

Another boost for Jackson Park will be a revamped public golf course now in the planning stages from Tiger Woods.

The center also will be a model of efficient energy use. As the center’s website says:

The Center will be a real-life symbol of the President and Mrs. Obama’s commitment to sustainability. The project will, at a minimum, be LEED v4 Platinum, and we are exploring the possibility to surpass those qualifications.

Instead of containing the actual papers from the eight years of the Obama administration, the Obama Library will have the material in digitized form. The actual papers will be kept by the National Archives at another location.

Tribune columnist Glanton says there’s a lot riding on Obama’s promises, but she predicts success.

This is a community that’s heard lots of promises over the decades. And they have seen just as many promises broken. Not everyone here benefited from the change Obama promised eight years ago. Many African-Americans, in particular, are still waiting for the prosperity they thought a black president would bring.

But this time, Obama isn’t making political promises. He’s giving back to the community that he says has been responsible for the best things that have happened in his life. …

These are the people who stood behind Obama before anybody could even pronounce his name. Now the entire city will benefit when he pays the South Side back in full.

“It’s about more than buildings or jobs or contracts,” Obama said. “It’s about hope. It’s about belief. It’s about a story that our kids tell themselves.”

Originally posted on Daily Kos on May 7, 2017.

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