The sweepstakes for the Obama Presidential Library continue to heat up. For the University of Chicago and the surrounding area, near certainty has shifted to anxiety and a win-at-all-costs stance. A consensus is forming among those most passionate about attracting the Library, one which is based on urbanness, the mid-South Side’s exceptional connection—and entitlement—to the Obama legacy, and an aphoristic expectation that the Library will be a transformative presence for an under-served community. None of these claims are as absolute as boosters imagine.

The University of Chicago seeks to offer up this slice of Washington Park to the Obama Foundation.

The University of Chicago seeks to offer up this slice of Washington Park to the Obama Foundation.

Background and Current Status

A full summary of the history and recent developments related to the siting of the Barack Obama Presidential Library Center (BOPLC)1 would require an entire series of blog posts. For the purposes of my thoughts below, here is the essential lay of the land:

  • Chicago—specifically the University of Chicago and the surrounding mid-South Side—have long been considered prohibitive favorites for the BOPLC, thanks to the Obamas’ connection to the area.
  • The Obama Foundation—responsible for selecting the site—placed in the Request for Proposals some requirements that have proven to be particularly challenging for the University of Chicago. Specifically, the Foundation asked that the bidding entity have clear and outright control over the land that it offered the BOPLC; that the BOPLC result in economic development of a surrounding area; and that proposed land be large enough for a ‘campus’ setting.
  • The UofC owns much land in the areas around its campus, but does not own a large, contiguous tract in an area that requires economic development (a former candidate site just south of campus will see economic development without the aid of a Library, for example).
  • The UofC solution for the above challenges was to propose to place the BOPLC in one of two 20-acre slices of Chicago Park District Land—to which it has no legal claim.
  • The Foundation selected the UofC proposal as one of four finalists. Each of these finalists have unique challenges and some fascinating historical context
  • Unsatisfied with the UofC’s pathway to gaining control of the land from the independent Chicago Park District, the Foundation leaked its “concern” with the proposal, setting off a wave of anxiety that Chicago could possibly lose the BOPLC to NYC.
  • Currently, Rahm Emanuel is pulling levers to ensure that the Park District transfers the land to the City of Chicago, and in turn sidestep the considerable regulations that limit development in Chicago parks.
  • The Park District Board held two public meetings in January—seemingly in concert with the UofC—as a way to present the plan and collect community feedback on offering Park District land to the Foundation
SRO at the Chicago Park District-Obama Presidential Library community feedback meeting, January 13, 2015.

SRO at the Chicago Park District-Obama Presidential Library community feedback meeting, January 14, 2015.

Olmsted's Washington and Jackson Parks flank the University of Chicago.

Olmsted’s Washington and Jackson Parks flank the University of Chicago. Blue and red mark potential Obama Library sites.

I attended the second of these meetings, which consisted of a short introduction by the university’s community engagement office and a representative from the prominent architecture firm Skidmore, Owens, and Merrill. The remaining 3 to 4 hours of these meetings were dedicated to public comments. Democracy! Or, something.

I’ll limit my thoughts here to the rhetoric employed by the UofC and those speaking about the Washington Park proposal.

The ‘First Urban Presidential Library’

Starting with the UofC official and the SOM speaker and continuing with many others, one common refrain was that the BOPLC on the South Side would be the ‘first urban Presidential Library.’ Not ‘an urban Presidential Library,’ or ‘the most urban Presidential Library,’ but specifically the first. Thinking about other Library sites, I was left with flashbacks to my doctoral candidacy oral exams and the question, “What is urban?” The Clinton Library is firmly within the boundaries of Little Rock, and a pleasant stroll from the heart of downtown. The Ford Library is basically in downtown Grand Rapids, just across the river from tall buildings, etc.2 I’ll leave those more familiar with Libraries in Boston, Atlanta, Dallas, and Southern California to assess their urban bona fides.

An apparently non-urban view of downtown Grand Rapids from the Gerald Ford Presidential Museum (WikiCommons).

An apparently non-urban view of downtown Grand Rapids from the Gerald Ford Presidential Museum (WikiCommons).

So what do we mean when we say that the BOPLC would be exceptionally (and even exclusively) “urban?” My mind first went to the use of “urban” as a stand-in for African American, in the way that some bookstores created an “Urban Fiction” section. But why not just say, ‘predominantly African American community?’ Maybe the term derives from some sort of Chicago chauvinism, dismissing Little Rock and Grand Rapids as ‘not really urban.’ Or, the ‘urban’ focus might be a stand-in for the BOPLC’s potential placement in a community that has experienced the brunt of the historical “urban crisis” and ongoing related “problems.”

I buy that a mid-South Side location would be very urban: in the midst of residential density and traversed by mass transit. But the desire for a landscaped park campus weakens what could be the considerable strengths of a truly “urban” BOPLC.

“Bring It On Home!” or “The Audacity of a Dope”

Barack and Michelle Obama’s special connections to the University of Chicago and the surrounding communities were on full display during the community meeting. The Foundation’s leak about “concerns” regarding the UofC proposals—if intended to ratchet up the pressure on the bids—was effective. Community speakers couched their comments with a sense of urgency, to the point of disbelief that the BOPLC could be lost to New York. I sensed an unease that only compounded the anxiety: no one was certain who to blame for the potential loss of the library. The UofC? The Obamas? City Hall? In place of a well-defined target, speakers referred to the specter of a lack of community consensus on an ‘everything on the table’ effort to woo the BOPLC. Several speakers warned that a lack of unity will only open the door further for New York. This stance seemed at first to preempt any criticisms of the park plan.

Cadres of locals sported a variety of t-shirts printed for the occasion, most emblazoned with the pithy phrase, “Bring It On Home!” Many speakers crafted their remarks in a way to conclude with that rallying cry. On the farthest end of this exceptional-entitled spectrum, speakers informed the Obamas that they owed their Library to the mid-South Side. The Hyde Park area, they argued, produced Obama the politician, and his rise to prominence would not have been possible without their support. One respondent went so far as to conclude that, if Obama selected New York City over Chicago, then he should write a new book titled, “The Audacity of a Dope.”

Underneath these attitudes about the Obamas runs a current of suspicion about the area’s favorite son. Obama is firmly identified with the Hyde Park, yet he is not truly from the neighborhood. Young Barack did not effortlessly become a Hyde Parker. Movers in the entrenched political structure viewed the outsider with suspicion, and withheld significant support until his viability as a US Senate candidate became apparent. In truth, the President’s connection to the mid-South Side is not as absolute as many boosters present or presume. It is no guarantee that the family will even move back to Chicago in 2017.

A Transformative Institution…Just Like a Transformative Presidency?

Commentators operated from the assumption that the complex would absolutely serve as an “economic engine” for the surrounding community. The Foundation even built this idea into the RFP. This metaphysic of revitalization went virtually unquestioned during the meeting. The record of economic impact of Presidential Libraries is actually rather uneven. Champions point to the Clinton Library, whose opening coincided—if not spurred—a renaissance of downtown Little Rock’s riverfront. A recent report produced for the ten year anniversary of the Clinton concluded that $2.5 billion of investments have poured into the area since the library opened. I’m curious about the impact of the Kennedy and Carter Libraries on their immediate surroundings.

One of the greatest assets for the South Side locations is that of access to public transportation and the Loop. The Washington Park site, for example, would require less than a ten minute ride on the CTA Green Line from a concentration of hotels second only Midtown Manhattan (I assume). I don’t envision any new hotels being built in Washington Park or Englewood just for the BOPLC. Unlike the Clinton Library, visitors will most likely maintain their base well away from the library, thus weakening the economic impact.

A couple of community speakers not only acknowledged the economic impact of the BOPLC, but also used that premise to caution against secondary gentrification and displacement. This sentiment is one of the bases of the most acerbic criticism of the Washington Park siting, which has caused some to demand a community partnership agreement with…the Foundation? University of Chicago? Anyone involved in the decision making, maybe. Those of this mind cite Columbia’s $76 million community benefits agreement that funds an array of minority and low-income projects, as some sort of atonement for the university’s decades-long takeover and appropriation of West Harlem and Manhattanville.

That no such explicit agreement has been reached between the University of Chicago and the surrounding communities fuels deep-seated suspicion about the university’s good faith in being the handmaiden to an institution that supposedly benefits the community. As one speaker exclaimed to a stirring audience, “We shouldn’t have to live history over, and over, again!” Ongoing organizing efforts to pressure the University to create an emergency trauma facility at the hospital justifiably calls into question the devotion of resources towards a cultural institution in a community lacking such an existential resource.

The issue of cultural and social impact on the surrounding area is even murkier. The Foundation foregrounds notions of uplift in BOPLC programming. Speakers pointed towards the impact the BOPLC would have on education, respect for the neighborhood, and even the epidemic of violence faced by young black men. I feel that many of the speakers too quickly assumed the fundamental transformation that the BOPLC would bring to the South Side. I’m skeptical of any potential for systematic change or restorative justice connected to the BOPLC. As Anthony Clark has shown, the popularity and impact of Presidential Libraries are directly proportionate to that president’s popularity. Although it may not seem so in the Chicago and mid-South Side bubble, President Obama is not popular. The Office of the Presidency and the federal government are not popular. These are not good harbingers for an economically and socially transformative cultural site.3

In thinking of the BOPLC as exceptionally transformative, we see a curious parallel to expectations of the Obama presidency itself. Perhaps the fate of this ca. 2008-2009 hope is fueling my skepticism.

Who Are We Talking To? 

There are at least three very powerful institutions responsible for placing the BOPLC in the near-South Side: the University of Chicago, Chicago City Hall (via Rahm Emanuel), and the Obama Foundation (which itself is a complex of power-brokers and the wishes of the President and the First Lady). Clearly, the final decision rests with the First Couple. Yet they will be relatively constrained by the bids placed in front of them. Making things even more complicated, the bids are constrained by the Foundation’s requirements. This interlocking, infinite bidding procedure provides each of the institutions immunity against ultimate responsibility.

Regardless, I’ll offer my proposal, to whomever:

  • Truly make the BOPLC the most “urban” Presidential Library. Leverage the density of the Washington Park area, do not dilute it by creating an obvious park-like “campus.”
  • Build the main structure on the vacant 11-acre plot across King Drive from the park.
  • Incorporate the Green Line CTA Station into the main building design, and offer rapid bus transit between the BOPLC and the Museum of Science and Industry via the UofC campus.
  • Create a pedestrian bridge to the park and use it for what it is: an open space for the public to enjoy.
  • Allow aspects of the Foundation and Library to ‘infiltrate’ the surrounding community by building incubators for business, culture, health, and education on the scattered University-owned vacant lots in the vicinity.
  • Avoid the appropriation of Washington Park, which will result in lawsuits and a complicated Section 106 National Register of Historic Places review that could drag on for years.

I’ll leave the microphone now and wait for a response from the President, or Rahm, or whoever.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *