Six years after announcing the location of his Presidential Center, former President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, finally held the official groundbreaking of their $830 million facility in Jackson Park on Tuesday, September 28.
It was a historic ceremony that not only marked a new chapter in the couple’s storied political career but one that ushered in a new era of excitement and concern in Chicago’s Woodlawn and South Shore neighborhoods.
Under clear blue skies and cool temperatures, the Obamas, Governor J.B. Pritzker, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Aldermen Leslie Hairston (5th Ward) and Gregory Mitchell (7th Ward) shoveled the ceremonial dirt. (20th Ward Alderman Jeanette Taylor, who is vaccinated, was absent while recovering from COVID-19).
The grand facility is expected to polish the Obamas’ legacy and transform the South Side into a hot tourist destination that they hope will pump $3.1 billion in the local economy and spark economic development in the area.
At the ceremony, Zell Wilson, a junior at Hyde Park Academy involved with Black Girls Code and Girls 4 Science, introduced Michelle Obama before she spoke. Trenton Banks, a junior at South Shore High School who plays basketball and runs track, introduced President Obama.
“The Obama Presidential Center will be the world’s premier institution for developing civic leaders across fields, across disciplines, and yes, across the political spectrum,” Obama said. “A campus, right here on the South Side, where we’ll train the next generation of leaders not just in government and public service, but leaders who want to start businesses, and run nonprofits and be socially conscious in an effective way.”
With the ongoing pandemic, the potential shutdown of the federal government, Mayor Lightfoot’s budget woes at City Hall and days of plunging stocks on Wall Street, the groundbreaking ceremony of the Obama Presidential Center was a positive lift during a time of gloom and negative news in the city and around the country. With his trademark optimism that fueled his rise to the White House as the nation’s first Black president, Obama’s 18-minute speech aimed to inspire hope to residents in the Woodlawn and South Shore neighborhoods, where poverty and disinvestment remain a concern.
But during his speech, Obama said Jackson Park “is surrounded by vibrant neighborhoods, in a community where the couple believe they can help make a difference.” Obama also noted that, as a 23-year-old moving to Chicago from New York, he first drove through the park to his new home after he exited off the Chicago Skyway.
“The Obama Presidential Center is our way of repaying some of what this amazing city has given us,” Obama said. “But we’re also building the Center because we believe it can speak to some of the central struggles of our time, and we are living through a moment of rapid disruption, in technology, in the global economy, in our social arrangements, in our environments.”
The ceremony was closed to the public, but over a hundred people on Stony Island waited outside the entrance throughout the ceremony. Some were supporters who had hoped to get a glimpse of the former president. Others were protestors who remained concerned about the Center’s potential to spark gentrification in the area with rising rents and home values.
Before the ceremony began, a small plane flew a banner over Jackson Park that read, “Stop tearing down trees. Move the OPC.”
Lawsuits, legal battles and federal approvals prolonged the start of the Center’s construction. Friends of the Park lost several lawsuits after it tried to block the Center from being built in Jackson Park. After numerous protests, activists finally won a community benefits agreement ordinance, which includes a $7 million Woodlawn Loan Fund and a 58-unit mixed-income building. But some activists who protested outside the ceremony said the ordinance does not do enough for concerned residents in the community.
“You can cut the ribbon but don’t cut us out,” said South Shore resident Dixon Romeo. “This is our community. We should be able to stay.”
Security was tight along Stony Island where 15 Chicago police cruisers sat in front of Hyde Park Academy during the ceremony. On the east side of the street sat about 10 city sanitation trucks that blocked access to the sidewalk outside the site of the groundbreaking ceremony.
The Center will perhaps be the only major attraction that will be built on the South Side in decades. In recent years, new attractions have been built downtown or on the North Side. With disinvestment in the South Side still a problem, officials hope the Center will become a major source of pride in the area.
The ceremony was over in an hour and began with a short video that highlighted the Obamas’ roots in Chicago and his vision to cultivate young leadership through his Presidential Center. Another video included a speech from President Joe Biden, who canceled his scheduled visit to Chicago Wednesday, September 29, because of the budget crisis in Washington, D.C.
During his speech, Obama said the Center’s construction will bring approximately 750,000 visitors to Woodlawn and strengthen the broader South Side business climate and “preserve and enhance all the things that make Jackson Park special.”
The Center is expected to be completed in 2025. It will include a presidential museum, a forum building with community space, a branch of the Chicago Public Library and an athletic center. The Center will not have a presidential library that would normally include documents and archived records for the public to view. The Obamas instead decided to digitize 30 million unclassified documents for people to view online.
The Center will also have surrounding grounds that will include a vegetable garden, reminiscent of Michelle Obama’s vegetable garden at the White House, a sledding hill, playgrounds for children and open space for community events like farmers’ markets, family reunions and picnics.
During her brief speech, Michelle Obama said while she and her husband lived in Chicago, Jackson Park, “for the most part, just didn’t call to us,” she said. “It didn’t always feel like a place for me. Too often this gorgeous park felt like something to drive through or go around to go somewhere else.
“The OPC will be a place where folks can find work, where kids can learn and grow and envision bigger lives for themselves, where families can walk and ride a bike or have a reunion in the grass, where everybody can find calm and beauty and peace and safety,” she said, saying that opportunities for art, music and museum-going, apart from the Museum of Science and Industry, required a trip downtown during her South Shore girlhood.
Mayor Lightfoot said, “The Obama Presidential Center presents an important opportunity to restore the social and economic vibrancy of our city’s South Side. That’s why I am beyond thrilled to help make history and break ground on this incredible project, which will create a ripple effect of inclusive, socioeconomic growth for residents in the surrounding community and our entire city. My team and I are grateful to the many government and community leaders for making this effort possible and we look forward to continuing our work to uplift our historically underserved neighborhoods.”
Governor Pritzker said, “While this Center will be one of a presidential scale, its presence and purpose still speak to the same community-centered vision that has always defined the Obamas’ work – and there’s no better home base than the community that took the family from the statehouse to the White House. I’m particularly proud of our state contributions to these efforts – reshaping and enhancing trails and roadways throughout the neighborhood to ensure that the Center is an accessible and enjoyable space for all.”
Thanks to the generosity of funding provided by The Field Foundation of Illinois, Inc. in producing this article.