Months before the official groundbreaking of the Obama Presidential Center (OPC), residents and commuters were already noticing changes to the landscape near the lakefront. Prep work began with the closure of familiar streets like Cornell Drive and Midway Plaisance which will undergo alterations that are changing traffic patterns and is thus far complicating crossing the street or taking the bus.
Yet, for many people, the scope of the area’s impending transformation didn’t really hit home until the trees came down, hundreds of trees—some more than a century old—seemingly taken for granted by OPC planners. Last month, construction crews tore up the track and turf field near 61st Street to make way for the project. And the Women’s Garden at Jackson Park was recently uprooted to the dismay of local residents who’d been told by the Obama Foundation that it would be left intact.
It does not take a “tree hugger” or a preservationist to realize the ecological damage that has been done overnight, which has wider implications for the city. The Southeast Side, for example—if not the entire South Side—notoriously suffers from environmental pollution and can hardly afford to spare a square foot of greenery.
Studies show the Jackson Park trees removed about 350 pounds of air pollution a year and absorbed two hundred tons of carbon. They additionally provided a cooling effect and a needed respite for Chicagoans. Proponents of the OPC in Jackson Park have assured the public that they will replace the tree deficit with the same number of young trees, but frankly, we may not see the Lake Shore canopy return to its former glory in our lifetimes or ever.
The trees that were cut consisted of roughly forty species of mostly healthy mature trees with trunks that were up to fifty-nine inches in width and acted as both food and shelter for birds and wildlife. The majority of birds that inhabit or migrate through the state descend upon the shores of Chicago’s Lake Michigan in a route that is known as the Mississippi Flyway. All kinds of bird species, plant species, and animals and insects, were co-dependent on the Jackson Park ecosystem that has been disrupted.
This piece of protected land has been coveted ever since it was host to the World’s Columbian Exposition and dating further back. But today, through a combination of legislative maneuvers, Jackson Park has gone from having public oversight to being controlled by private hands.
With the lack of community input or a comprehensive community benefits agreement it’s unclear what other changes are coming with this development. But up until this point, much has already been lost.
Jackie Serrato is the Editor in Chief at the Weekly. She was recently a neighborhood captain for Best of the South Side, where she covered La Villita, Pilsen, and Back of the Yards.