Activism | Politics

Priority in Planning

South Side United seeks greater community involvement in Obama library development process

Courtesy of the Obama Library

Of the 150 individuals who attended the first Washington Park Summit on April 1, only fourteen actually lived in the neighborhood, according to the Hyde Park Herald. Cecilia Butler, longtime Washington Park resident and president of the Washington Park Resident’s Advisory Council, called the meeting “insulting” due to the lack of notice given to neighborhood residents. An event posted on the neighborhood bulletin website EveryBlock did not appear until less than a week before the event.

“What we need in Washington Park is first to let the community know about what’s happening,” Butler said in a phone interview with the Weekly. “Twice I asked, ‘how many in this room live in Washington Park’ and I could never hit the twenty-person mark. So somebody did not do their job.”

Organized by the South East Chicago Commission, which recently became independent of the University of Chicago, the Washington Park Summit—which follows in the path laid by the Annual Woodlawn Summit, now in its eighth year—included an update on the Obama Presidential Center. While Jackson Park was ultimately selected as the site for the library over Washington Park, Butler feels that area residents, including those in her neighborhood, have been “forgotten” and “ignored” amidst efforts to plan for and discuss the impact of the presidential library, which is set to break ground in 2018, on the neighborhoods that neighbor Jackson Park. The emergence of a new community-organizing group, South Side United (SSU), seeks to address the concerns for the residents of Woodlawn, Washington Park, and South Shore.

Gabriel Piemonte, the founding member of SSU, noted in an interview with the Weekly that while the Obama Presidential Library and its planning process concern his group, SSU was actually created in response to a more specific event: 20th Ward Alderman Willie Cochran’s public announcement on March 28 of a new organization aimed at advising the Obama Foundation on community needs regarding economic development.

This advisory organization, now known as the WWPSS (“Woodlawn, Washington Park and South Shore Community and Economic Development Organization”), is the result of a $250,000 grant given by the Chicago Community Trust to a consulting firm called Next Street in order to determine what a community organization in the southeast corner of the South Side could potentially look like. WWPSS is also widely considered to be a brainchild of Rev. Byron Brazier, a Washington Park resident and leader of Woodlawn’s Apostolic Church of God, among other institutions and organizations. But according to Piemonte, residents received little notice that plans for a community development corporation were already underway, or that funding for such an organization had already been secured. South Side United came about primarily as a reaction to the WWPSS and its lack of resident input.

“[WWPSS] was literally announced in South Shore, and nobody knew that they were included in this idea,” Piemonte said. “It was announced at a 5th Ward meeting, [but] Leslie Hairston [the ward’s alderman] … was not physically there for this meeting. Which appears to have been an intentional decision. She wasn’t sure what to do, but she had to kind of play ball, so she let them present.”

Piemonte sees this failure to inform residents as part of a larger trend in Chicago development, wherein underdeveloped areas become targets for “blue ribbon” committees and planning corporations but in the end receive little actual support from the city. He cites Block 37, Maxwell Street, and the destruction of public housing in the 1990s and early 2000s as earlier examples of this pattern.

The WWPSS organization, still lacking an official name, finished a campaign earlier this month to solicit applications for a twenty-one-member board. Nine of those positions will be filled by representatives of the Woodlawn, Washington Park, and South Shore neighborhoods. The other seats will presumably be filled by representatives from the other institutions and organizations involved. The organization did not respond to the Weekly’s request for comment.

In a blog post on the “Off the Cuff” section of the SSU website, Piemonte suggested as an alternative to the WWPSS model the creation of separate local development councils for Woodlawn, Washington Park, and South Shore, in order to ensure that residents have real power over what developers can and cannot build in their neighborhoods. The councils would work together at a broader level as a united, resident-led organization. Modeled in part after the North Kenwood Oakland Conservation Community Council, these councils would be incorporated by ordinance to ensure that their decisions are binding. However, while most councils of this type have an appointed board, Piemonte advocates for an elected one.

“The whole problem with the development corporation and what it represents in Chicago culture is a lack of faith in the deliberative capacity of the people,” Piemonte said. “So what we think we need is a different model of how we think about how neighborhoods can make decisions.”

Thus far, Woodlawn has shown the most progress in actually developing the kind of council that Piemonte is imagining. The Woodlawn SSU group is primarily comprised of residents from East Woodlawn who first organized together in opposition to the building of the University of Chicago’s new charter school campus at 63rd Street and University Avenue. Those organizing efforts also focused on a lack of community input and awareness. According to Piemonte, attendees at the SSU meetings in Woodlawn have begun discussing the steps to incorporation, although no official documentation has been prepared yet. South Shore residents appear interested in the concept and continue to discuss it, but not with any concrete steps on the horizon. Washington Park residents, however, are less enthusiastic.

“We’ve gone to Washington Park, we went to the [Washington Park Resident’s Advisory Council] and we presented,” Piemonte explained. “People were very interested and they said ‘Well, we’ll get back to you.’ They didn’t. We called, we didn’t hear back. They can be a very slow, deliberative group.”

Part of this reluctance likely stems from Washington Park’s history in terms of community development propositions. In 2009, Chicago’s loss for the 2016 Summer Olympics spelled a massive lost opportunity for Washington Park, and again in 2016 it lost the Obama Presidential Center to Jackson Park. Rather than jump headfirst into development organization plans, neighborhood leaders like Butler want to ensure that as many residents as possible are informed about their options before making any decisions to join a multi-neighborhood organization like SSU.

“We’re up in the air,” Butler said of her neighborhood. “It’s all about first letting our community know.”

Butler remains uneasy about joining not only SSU, but also the Obama Library South Side Community Benefits Agreement Coalition, which includes the Woodlawn-based organizing group Southside Organizing Together for Power, the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO), the Bronzeville Regional Collective, and the Hyde Park-based Prayer and Action Collective. Although she has been considered a major proponent of Community Benefits Agreements for new developments in the past, Butler firmly believes that neighborhoods must be fully informed and united before drafting any resolution regarding community action for or against development measures. Furthermore, she believes that the neighborhoods immediately surrounding the presidential library and their residents should be given priority in organizing efforts like the creation of a CBA.

“KOCO needs to leave this particular issue alone,” Butler said of the Kenwood-based organization’s significant involvement in the Coalition and the push for a CBA, believing that those living closest to Jackson Park should spearhead the debate. “But, whatever opportunities that are out there, we do need to take advantage of them. But first, I want to let my community know, be aware of it.”

SSU shares much of its concern with the Coalition. According to Jawanza Malone, Executive Director of KOCO, Piemonte and others now involved with SSU have previously attended community meetings organized by the Coalition, but no meetings have taken place since SSU was formed. And although the Coalition does not have any official stance on its relationship with SSU, Malone hopes the groups will work together in the future.

“I would like to see them join the Coalition,” Malone said. “I think they would be a powerful ally in this fight.”

As SSU increases its membership and further develops its plans for the implementation of local development councils, Malone’s vision remains a possibility. Piemonte, while suspicious of the WWPSS organization, does not describe himself or his community organizing efforts as anti-development. But the problem, and the motivation behind SSU’s creation, lies in who dictates the course of development on the South Side, where residents have historically received little in terms of decision-making power when developers become interested in their neighborhoods. SSU aims to attract developers, but on residents’ own terms.

“Obviously, the development corporation is a group of people thinking ‘Well, people are going to want to build near the Obama Presidential Center,” Piemonte said. “And that makes sense to us. We think that’s great. We have to decide what’s gonna get built.”

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