The Barack Obama Foundation officially announced its selection of the University of Chicago’s bid for the Obama Presidential Library (OPL) in an early morning video message on Tuesday, May 12. The announcement featured Michelle and Barack Obama, as well as several testimonials from apparent South Side residents. Though the long-awaited announcement did not name the library’s exact site, much of the attention regarding the OPL and its final location has turned to Washington Park, which has emerged as the favorite among residents and area business owners.
The Washington Park bid consists of thirty-three acres available to the Foundation for construction of the park: twenty-two of those acres account for a section of Washington Park’s green space, and the other eleven acres consist of a vacant lot owned by the UofC, the City of Chicago, and the CTA. If built in this space, the OPL will provide opportunities that the Washington Park and Woodlawn neighborhoods seldom see; however, this optimism carries with it an expectation of accountability for the Foundation. For business owners, the promise of economic development must also acknowledge the people who already live in these neighborhoods. According to them, the library’s ability to enhance these neighborhoods should be achieved through the support of their residents. Without the prioritization of community development, the threat of that community’s being overshadowed by the library will remain a serious concern in the coming years.
Ghian Foreman, a developer with Chicago-based community development agency Greater Southwest and a lifetime resident of Hyde Park and Kenwood, lauds the OPL for the opportunities it could provide to the surrounding neighborhoods. He prefers Washington Park to Jackson Park, a popular opinion among local business owners and residents.
“I think that there’s so much more potential of what could be [in the Washington Park area]. You have Garfield Boulevard, which is a major street, a lot of traffic. You got the Red Line, you got the Green Line, you’ve got access to Midway airport, you’ve got bike lanes on State Street, you’ve got Washington Park, which, you know, it’s an international destination!” Foreman said.
The immediate cost to the park itself is unclear and dependent on where the OPL will sit within the bounds of the Washington Park bid. Friends of the Parks (FOTP), an advocacy group that aims to preserve parkland, has argued for placing the library primarily on the vacant lot just west of Washington Park at the corner of King and Garfield. According to the UofC, a specific use for the lot was not designated within the proposal.
The state legislature responded swiftly to threats of litigation from FOTP if the library is built on parkland. HB 373, a bill passed on April 23 by the Illinois legislature, clarifies that “the corporate authorities of cities and park districts may enter into leases, not to exceed 99 years, to allow a corporation or society” to build or renovate a museum on Chicago parkland. The bill’s success has stoked fears that more investors will be able to build properties along Lake Michigan, until the lakefront turns “into Disneyland,” in the words of Melanie Moore, Director of Policy at FOTP.
Many residents, however, see the possibility of the OPL being located on parkland as a necessary sacrifice. To Paula Hamernick, manager of Greenline Coffee on 61st and Eberhart, the choice is obvious.
“Well, I really respect the fact that we can’t lose more green space. The city already lacks for green space. I feel like we need jobs more than—like if you’re gonna quantify the values, I value the green space, and I value the parkland—but if it has to be one or the other, I value people more, and the fact that they need jobs more, and if this brings more jobs, and if it brings more opportunity, then to me that’s more valuable.”
Greenline Coffee comes out of the business incubator of Sunshine Gospel Ministries—Hamernick and her husband Joel Hamernick, the organization’s executive director, hope that that the presidential library will help in developing micro-businesses throughout the neighborhoods surrounding the library’s final destination.
According to the Obama Public Library Economic Report from the UofC, the construction of the library would result in $156 million in new earnings for local businesses and institutions and 3,280 new jobs. The report also notes that, post-construction, an estimated $14 million and $17 million would be generated annually in food and retail, respectively, in the neighborhoods surrounding the library site. Additionally, “over 11 new retail outlets and 30 new restaurants” would be established in the surrounding neighborhoods.
Tierra Jones, owner of the year-old Penthouse Boutique on 63rd and Woodlawn, also welcomes such development.
“Owning a business close to the area, it would definitely drive traffic, drive more, bigger business who would want to come in the area which will, for me, bring growth and potential. It would just be a better fit, for me, and beneficial for everybody,” Jones said.
The difference in the perceived need for economic development in the Washington Park community versus the Woodlawn and Hyde Park communities has also convinced business owners that the former would experience a larger economic and aesthetic impact with the addition of the presidential library. Both parks are home to well-known Chicago museums, but the popularity of Jackson Park’s Museum of Science and Industry, which saw over 1.3 million visitors in 2014, far outweighs that of the DuSable Museum of African American History, which welcomed approximately 118,000 last year.
“Jackson Park already has the Museum of Science and Industry, already has other things going on, it’s beautiful, lots of beautiful places to go. But I feel like it would absolutely, it would change the landscape of the South Side, if [the OPL] were a little bit further in away from the lake,” Hamernick said.
There is excitement, then, for the library’s potential to inject capital into Washington Park. After all, the neighborhood lacks basic services; after the 2008 purchase by the UofC of the Washington Park Shopping Center, along with the March 2014 buy-up of Jardan Food and Liquor, the neighborhood lacks even a local grocery store.
Nevertheless, many business leaders and owners in the area are conscious of the threat that too much development could bring and wary of the ousting of residents.
“The only part that would be a big problem is that if it ends up not bringing up the community. If it doesn’t bring opportunity to the people that need it most, or if it just brings opportunity to the people who already have opportunity, then it’s a waste, in my mind. It has to be given to people who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity,” said Hamernick.
Concerns about development have always circulated throughout the neighborhood, especially in regards to the UofC’s presence south of the Midway. As a result, it is important to entrepreneurs like Foreman and Jones that residents recognize the ongoing nature of this conversation, and take steps to embrace the opportunities that the library could present rather than shy away from the possibility of gentrification.
“The university is already buying up all of the property in the area, so I feel like it’s a movement that’s already taking place with or without the library, you know what I mean?” Jones said.
Foreman believes that residents can retain their homes in these neighborhoods despite rising property values; as residents, their roots in the community and the support structures already in place will enable them to retain their homes and, by extension, the character of their neighborhoods.
“So, if community members are truly concerned about, ‘Oh, I don’t want to gentrify,’ don’t sell your property! Improve your property, rehab your property, get some loans, get some help,” he said. “You know there are organizations out here like Neighborhood Housing Services. It has loans to help you get a new back porch, to get a new roof, to get some energy-efficient windows. Let’s take advantage of some of these,” he said.
However, without channels of communication between community members, businesses, the UofC, and the Foundation, the OPL could create a Washington Park sprawling with museums and adjacent to a first class university, but devoid of the communities that provided the nominal impetus for the Foundation’s decision to locate the library on the South Side in the first place. Residents and business owners of the neighborhoods that will be directly affected by the library want the current rhetoric of cooperation from the UofC to continue to characterize the relationship between the institution and the neighborhoods.
“So, residents who say it’s gonna change the neighborhood, they’re absolutely right,” Wallace Goode, executive director of the Hyde Park Chamber of Commerce, said. “It is going to change the neighborhood. The question is, how can they be involved in that change, and how can the change be beneficial for new opportunities and established opportunities.”
Two organizations have attempted to open up these channels, both before the announcement and in the few days afterwards. In November 2014, the Washington Park Advisory Council and the Washington Park Residents’ Advocacy Council drafted a twenty-seven-point Community Benefits Agreement. The majority of the agreement addresses tensions in the relationship between Washington Park and the UofC, which far precede any talks about a presidential library, and demands greater support from the university in terms of job training, job creation, health care, and other programs.
Shortly after the announcement from the Foundation last Tuesday, the Bronzeville Regional Ad Hoc Collective also released a Community Benefits document, which outlines the expectations for the relationship between local neighborhoods, their leaders, and the Foundation. The creation of black-owned local business is a recurring concern throughout, as is the support of residents and their families.
The question of whom the library will benefit isn’t just an economic one. In the announcement video, Michelle Obama said that she considers herself a “South Sider,” just as her husband reminded audiences that he built both his personal and political lives here. To many residents, the OPL represents a landmark that will instill a sense of possibility within the communities surrounding the library.
“Educationally, whether it’s field trips, whether it’s understanding civic engagement, whether it’s recognizing as a young African American that you, too, could be president, the list goes on and on from an educational standpoint,” Goode said of the unique opportunities that the library could provide to the region.
After the talks about economic development, the role of the University, and the fear of pricing residents out of the neighborhood, pride remains a central tenet of the support for bringing the library to the South Side, one echoed by business owner Jones.
“You always have to bring home these points that, you know, we have one of the best schools in the country on the South Side,” Jones said. “The president of the United States is from the South Side, you know, I just feel like it’s just another driving point for me to say you know, I’m from the South Side.”