The President Comes Home

Barack Obama

Last week, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle came to town to meet a small, invitation-only crowd to discuss details of The Obama Library Foundation Project in Jackson Park.

The former president was returning home to many who remember and were a part of his early days as a community organizer and/or participated in his political rise from State Senator to U.S. Senator to President.

This was Michelle’s first visit to Chicago since leaving the White House. The couple knows the South Shore Country Club, where the meeting was held, very well, as the place of marriage receptions not only for them, but also for Rahm and Amy Emanuel.

Michael Strautmanis, head of the Foundation, was to interview the former president, but clearly this was Obama’s presentation on his legacy. He shared his vision and became the presenter as he pointed to the blown up drawings of his library space.

Obama was returning home to a community he knew that took him to his highest level, and he was in front of the people who made his history.

The Obama Center is in an early stage of development, but will change the South Side of Chicago. For whom?

As he spoke candidly about his vision for the Library, the undercurrent in the room was why didn’t he come home like this while he was in office. Some said he forgot us as President, but maybe this will be his real contribution. Maybe.

The Library will transform the South Side of Chicago, as it links and directly impacts the communities of Hyde Park, Washington Park, Woodlawn and South Shore. Indeed, it will be beautiful and with expected worldwide visitors, the South Side will have an economic boom.

Barack spoke like a community organizer more than a President. He was the community organizer who became President, and who returned. The Prodigal Son maybe? He spoke like a resident of the South Side, as he compared and contrasted the public parks of Washington Park, Lincoln Park and Millennium Park.

He spoke directly to the differences between the South and North sides, and suggested the answers lie in racism. He slightly slapped Mayor Rahm Emanuel, without placing blame, but speaking to the possible change and excitement that the Obama Library will bring to the city.

He was casual, forthright, honest, open and excited. Michelle was mostly mum as she returned to her childhood neighborhood. In essence, he wants to provide in the presidential center what Chicago provided for him. This is clearly his give back.

The Presidential Vision

Barack Obama
Obama Library Rendering

The vision for the Library is for it to be a “Presidential Center,” an institution for the future. There will be exhibits that historically led to his presidency and it will have eight years of the Obama Era. Of course, there will be memorabilia and Michelle’s dresses.

His desire is to create an institution for the next generation that will lead to progress of change for the future. The Obama Presidential Center will be a “premiere institution for the city, the country, and the world for change’,” he said.

It will be a place to convene leadership, a living center to interest activism, politics, and criminal justice. It will be a place to build bridges. Without a doubt, it will be a transformational project for the South Side of Chicago that will change the city.

Obama wants it to be a hub, a laboratory for learning, not just a building with stuff. The project completes in 2021, four years away, and will create about 2,000 jobs. The President also announced that he and Michelle will contribute $2 million this year for summer youth programs in Chicago.


Barack Obama

There are problems facing the Library. One controversy is Cornell Drive. To close it or to keep it open, is the basic issue. To close it, as the President advocates, buys the project five contiguous acres of land.

Some community members are resisting this because of how it might affect traffic patterns with traffic jams and long waits, as Cornell Drive is a direct artery to getting to I-57 and the Bishop Ford Expressway to the south suburbs, and the Skyway to Indiana.

There is another problem in River City. Not once did the president speak of the golf course that will be a part of the attraction, which reportedly will be designed with Tiger Woods’ input.

Barack did speak of the children and how the Center will be a beacon of hope and promise. Some of the features include studio and recording space where children can learn video and other technology skills.

The President wants the Library to be interactive, a place of fun where learning and inspiration can take place. The Library might have a library inside its walls, and there may even be open rooftop space for barbecuing.

Another major challenge is that community people want ­ in writing ­ a collaborative community contract for jobs, contracts, and housing, similar to the one provided with the Staples Center in Los Angeles. This is a point of real concern, as far as protecting the interests of the area residents.

So far, the Obama Foundation has resisted this type of agreement ­ in writing ­ and the community is not trusting that it won’t get shafted, even if this is our own Black Native Son, Barack Obama.

A lot can happen in four years. A new Chicago mayor, a new Illinois governor, can certainly affect how things ultimately shake out with the Obama Presidential Center. Certainly, the president understands this political dynamic from his former life as a political wheeler-dealer. It will be interesting to watch this play out.

The Obama Center is in an early stage of development and discussion, but for certain, the edifice will change the South Side of Chicago. We are just uncertain as to what those changes will be and to the benefit, and detriment, of whom.

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