Obama Library raises concerns in Black community

Traffic, the environment, jobs among issues for neighborhoods

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MARTIN NESBITT, CHAIRMAN of the Obama Foundation, speaks at a press conference on Wednesday, August 3, where the organization officially announced that Jackson Park will be the site of the new Obama Presidential Center. Behind Nesbitt are (from left to right) Robert Zimmer, president of the University of Chicago, Pastor T.L. Barrett, Alderman Leslie Hairston (5th Ward) and Alderman Sophia King (4th Ward). (Photo by Jean Lachat/The University of Chicago)

By J. Coyden Palmer, Chicago Crusader

When the official announcement was made this week that the Barack Obama Presidential Center will be built in the Jackson Park community, the response from community members varied. While everyone is happy the museum to honor the nation’s 44th President will be built in a predominately Black community, concerns still linger over if the best site was picked and will it remain a Black community by the time the building goes up. Backers of both the Jackson Park and Washington Park sites stated valid reasons why one is better than the other, but Black Chicagoans are concerned the project will be more of a boost to the University of Chicago than the South Side as a whole.

One Black institution that hopes to benefit from the plan is the DuSable Museum of African American History. Perri L. Irmer, the President of DuSable, said currently the museum sees around 120,000 visitors per year. She is hoping to see that number triple by the time the Obama Center is set to open in 2021.

“We are thrilled…we love our President and first lady and we’re very grateful they have brought this project to the South Side,” Irmer said. “We’re a natural sister institution, since we celebrate Black history and President Obama is the first Black President of the United States. The DuSable Museum sits halfway between the two finalist sites so either way we benefit. What I expect to happen is we will see how the DuSable can help to bring the new development west to serve as a secondary economic development engine and carry the wave of benefits into Washington Park.”

Irmer said the DuSable currently leads the Museum Campus South group, a consortium of seven museums and cultural centers on the city’s mid-South Side. DuSable is the fiscal and managerial agents for the effort of branding and marketing all of the entities, which include the Oriental Institute, Logan Center for the Arts and Roby House. Irmer said the addition of the Obama Presidential Center will bring more attention to the South Side and there can be a bigger collaboration effort among the museums on a variety of issues.

“This means we can begin to develop an overall shared system of transportation and marketing. Perhaps we can do shared entry tickets, shared programming and exhibits. It’s an opportunity to expand all of these institutions,” Irmer said. “The Obama Center is going to draw a lot of international attention as well. That’s important because the international traveler spends a multiplier of six or seven times what a domestic traveler spends. So we will use this as a jumping off point to raise the profile of the DuSable Museum globally.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel believes the Obama Center will serve as an anchor for the entire community, not just entities like DuSable. He said the Obama Center presents a “once in a lifetime” opportunity to do major, concentrated development of significance in multiple areas.

“We’re going to make sure we do public investments in both parks and transportation, along with other amenities. There is going to be access by bike, rail and auto to this economic and cultural enrichment,” Emanuel said.

But during the 25-minute press conference, specific details about the multimillion dollar project were not divulged. One Black alderman told the Crusader it will be important that the Black community gets its fair share of the major construction contracts that will be doled out and it is vital the community, Black media and Black politicians watch the development of the project closely and work together.

Martin Nesbitt leads the Obama Foundation. He did not say where the final site of the building would be, but several media outlets have reported it will be on 61st and Stony Island. Nesbitt said over the course of the next 12 months there will be a lot of work to do.

“We will be entering the planning stage for the construction itself and making sure we are doing it in a way that is responsible to the environment and community,” he said.

But Kenneth Newman, a member of the Jackson Park and Midway Advisory Councils, has several concerns with the project. Proud to be a thorn in the side of Mayor Emanuel and city council members, Newman said the Black community has to learn more to find out how public dollars are spent every year on projects that always seem to exclude the Black community.

“We’re spending tens of millions of dollars on the Wooded Island here in the Jackson Park lagoon making it a better natural place for birds and other wildlife. It will be an eco-friendly place that can be damaged by the construction of the library in an area where it did not have to be built,” Newman said. “The positive economic impact of the library at Garfield and King Drive would make the community all the way west of the Dan Ryan much better. It would also help the neighborhoods going north to 35th and south to 71st. Those areas have become food deserts and there are numerous other problems.”

Newman also believes the proposed site will bring traffic problems to the area that currently do not exist. He said the Washington Park site is more accessible by two CTA train lines and three CTA bus lines and there would have been ample room to create parking. He said the city was planning to use the site for an Olympic stadium during its bid to host the 2016 games, so it is obvious they could have decided to put the Obama Center there where it would not hurt the environment or cause a potential traffic nightmare.

“They would need a minimal of 200 to 500 parking spaces underground otherwise all of the current parking that takes place on the Midway and in the surrounding area would be taken up by visitors,” Newman said. “They would have a traffic backup all the way to Lake Shore Drive. The number of bus lines in the proposed area has been cut in recent years so that is also a concern.”

Newman added he is also concerned about the make-up of residents Jackson Park will be by 2021. He said while the Obama Center will increase property values in the area, it also means rents could skyrocket and taxes on homes will rise. He is concerned not everyone will be able to afford to stay and reap the benefits of the library and a situation of large-scale gentrification could ensue.

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