By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
Former President Barack Obama made a surprise visit to a large town hall meeting at McCormick Place on Feb. 27, where he disappointed activists, reaffirming his belief that a community benefits agreement is not needed for his $500 million center and library in Jackson Park.
It was supposed to have been a question-and-answer meeting, but Obama spent a lot of time defending his decision to not sign a community benefits agreement that many residents say addresses lingering concerns of gentrification and the potential displacement of thousands of residents after the center is built in Woodlawn.
Still, the event was a spirited affair. Michael A. Strautmanis, vice president of Civic Engagement for the Obama Foundation, kicked off the meeting, which was preceded by five break-out discussion groups. Topics concerning the library considered: economic impact; transportation and road changes; museum program; buildings and landscape; and the Chicago Park District.
Hours before the town hall meeting, officials of the foundation announced that it will donate more than $3.5 million to build a new artificial turf field to replace one that is used for football, soccer and track at 61st and Stony Island.The announcement was a public relations move for the foundation as it struggles to build relations with community residents, many of whom attended Tuesday’s town hall meeting.
“I wanted to remind people why I think this has such enormous potential,” Obama said, noting the rise of a smart, young generation which aspires to change the city and world with its talent and ambitions.
Obama told the crowd he came to update residents on the library’s progress, but his speech served to inspire and defend a project that has drawn heavy criticism and concerns of transparency in the past year. Last month, activists converged on City Hall and blasted the city’s Black aldermen before the foundation’s proposal was introduced to the City Council. With criticism still rocking his blueprints to build a massive library on the South Side, Obama pumped up the crowd as he spoke about his South Side roots and his wife, Michelle. Then someone from the back yelled, “CBA!”
That dreaded acronym for community benefits agreement came from concerned residents who held a vigil outside McCormick Place before the town hall meeting.
In the past year, they have made an unsuccessful attempt to persuade the Obama Foundation to sign a community benefits agreement that would require the library to hire residents from Woodlawn and South Shore. Residents were also concerned about being displaced and the gentrification of the predominantly Black neighborhoods. Despite their concerns, Obama declined to sign one saying a community benefits agreement isn’t necessary.
“I think it’s admirable and important that communities when they’ve got big projects coming in are paying attention, who’s building, who’s benefitting, who’s getting the jobs,” Obama said at Tuesday’s meeting.
“I respect the intent and motivation on this, but what I said before is that we’re not coming in here as a for-profit organization. I’m not here raising a bunch of money to get this thing built, to get the program up and running. I’m not getting a salary out of the foundation, and Michelle and my motivations are entirely to make sure that the community benefits. The danger here is if we sign an agreement with one organization or two organizations or five organizations, the next thing you know you’ve got 40 organizations or 50 organizations; everybody has their own organization saying we should have the same control, decision making over who gets the contract. We’re not going to do that. What I want to make sure of is that everyone is represented, and by committing to a transparent process, everyone can judge as to whether we’re following through on commitments that we make.”
The explanation was Obama’s strongest public defense yet; one that aimed to answer critics so the project could move forward as it heads for Chicago’s planning commission.
Obama also said, “There’s constantly a balance we’ve got to strike to making sure of that existing residents benefit from economic development, benefitting from increases in home values. We have to balance that with the fact that we want more economic development in this community because that’s what creates more opportunities. You can’t have one without the other. You can’t say we want more jobs, more businesses, more opportunities for our kids, but otherwise [sic], we want everything to stay exactly the same. It doesn’t work that way. But, what we can do is make sure that we’re working with organizations and institutions in the community to preserve affordable housing, to make sure that it is residents that are benefitting. Those are the kinds of plans and activities that we have to have in order to get that perfect balance.
“A lot of the time people will get nervous about gentrification. It’s not my experience during that time that the big problem on the South Side has been too much development, too much economic activity, too many people being displaced because all of these folks from Lincoln Park are pouring in the South Side. That’s not what’s happening. Think about all the abandoned buildings and vacant lots here. We’ve got such a long way to go in terms of economic development before you’re even going to start seeing the prospect of significant gentrification. Right now, what we have to worry about is broken curbs, trash, boarded up buildings. That’s what we need to work on.”