Obama is build­ing a li­brary — and tak­ing on Chicago pol­i­tics

For­mer pres­i­dent try­ing to raise money for li­brary com­plex.

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - STATESMAN INVESTIGATES: FLOODING - By Kris­sah Thompson

CHICAGO — When the Barack Obama Pres­i­den­tial Cen­ter opens in 2021, it will sprawl across 20 acres on this city’s densely packed South Side. A mu­seum will oc­cupy one tower-like build­ing; an­other, dubbed “The Fo­rum,” will house a test kitchen, record­ing stu­dio and au­di­to­rium. The li­brary it­self won’t lit­er­ally house his pa­pers, since they plan to dig­i­tize ev­ery­thing, but will fea­ture a rooftop park to com­ple­ment the com­plex’s com­mu­nity gar­den, sled­ding hill and play­ground.

The 44th pres­i­dent says he wants it to serve not as a mon­u­ment to him­self but to big­ger ideals — democ­racy, cit­i­zen­ship, civic en­gage­ment. Still, Chicago SunTimes colum­nist Lynn Sweet spoke for many when she pre­dicted the com­plex will one day be known around here as “Oba­ma­land.”

For now, as Obama is busily rais­ing the hun­dreds of mil­lions needed to con­struct and en­dow it, ahead of a planned ground­break­ing next year, he is once again nav­i­gat­ing the ten­sions and at­tempt­ing to fi­nesse the pol­i­tics of the town where he got his start.

Build­ing on pub­lic land in a city is al­ways a messy en­deavor, and the ex­cite­ment and pride that the city holds for the Oba­mas is tinged with con­cerns.

Ear­lier this month, the for­mer pres­i­dent stopped by the Gary Comer Youth Cen­ter to make a sur­prise visit to a train­ing class his foun­da­tion held for lo­cal ac­tivists. Its di­rec­tor, Ayoka Mota Sa­muels is a fan and booster, but she has heard the grum­bling from some of the neigh­bors about the prospect of hav­ing a mas­sive tourist at­trac­tion in their midst.

How will traf­fic be mit­i­gated? Is the plan to re­place the park land where the cen­ter is be­ing built suf­fi­cient? Who is go­ing to get the con­struc­tion jobs?

“It wouldn’t be Chicago if we didn’t have com­plaints about ev­ery­thing ... . Peo­ple are def­i­nitely ex­cited about the li­brary, with­out a doubt, but they are con­cerned about ‘how does it im­pact me?’ “she said. “Chicagoans are like that about ev­ery­thing ... . It means that we care about what’s go­ing to hap­pen in our neigh­bor­hood.”

In what lo­cal pun­dits are call­ing the irony of ironies, Obama - who cut his teeth as a South Side com­mu­nity or­ga­nizer - is now in the bull’s eye of the area’s com­mu­nity or­ga­niz­ers.

Dozens of groups have asked the city, the Obama Foun­da­tion and the Univer­sity of Chicago (the of­fi­cial li­brary host) to sign a legally bind­ing pledge to pro­tect low-in­come hous­ing and home­own­ers, set aside 80 per­cent of jobs for im­me­di­ate neigh­bors and bol­ster sup­port for black-owned busi­nesses, among other things.

At a com­mu­nity meet­ing last month, Obama said he wasn’t in­ter­ested, ac­cord­ing to the Chicago Tribune. Agree­ments like those, he said, can be highly suc­cess­ful for com­mu­ni­ties deal­ing with for-profit devel­op­ers.

“But here’s the thing,” he said. “We are a non­profit and aren’t mak­ing money. We are just bring­ing money to the com­mu­nity.”

Obama’s deep con­nec­tions to his adopted home town were on dis­play last week dur­ing the first sum­mit of his new foun­da­tion. His mother-in-law, a Chicago na­tive, sat in the au­di­ence, and the city’s role in his life story was a con­stant re­frain.

“I ar­rived here, and for the next three years, I trav­eled all through the South Side and worked with lead­ers in churches and block clubs and com­mu­nity or­ga­ni­za­tions,” he said dur­ing the open­ing ses­sion. His own suc­cesses were mod­est, he said, but he learned that “or­di­nary peo­ple in lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties can do ex­tra­or­di­nary things when they’re given a chance, when their voices are heard.”

Michelle Obama rem­i­nisced about life in a neigh­bor­hood packed full of her ex­tended fam­ily.

“We lived in a house above my ma­ter­nal aunt,” she said. “We lived around the cor­ner from my grand­mother and an­other aunt. My grand­fa­ther, my mother’s fa­ther, [and his wife] were sep­a­rated, never di­vorced but liv­ing right around the cor­ner from each other. That’s black Chicago for you. It’s func­tional dys­func­tion.”

Still, there’s no in­di­ca­tion they plan to move back. The Oba­mas re­cently pur­chased a home in Wash­ing­ton, where their daugh­ter Sasha is still in high school, and the New York Post claims the cou­ple is shop­ping for an Up­per East Side apart­ment.

The cou­ple con­sid­ered sites in Hawaii and New York for the pres­i­den­tial mu­seum and li­brary be­fore set­tling on Chicago. The plan quickly drew back­lash from preser­va­tion­ist de­voted to Jack­son Park, which was de­signed in 1871 by Fred­er­ick Law Olm­sted, the leg­endary land­scape ar­chi­tect of Cen­tral Park fame.

The non­profit Friends of the Parks ini­tially pushed for the cen­ter to be built in­stead on va­cant land across the street from a dif­fer­ent Chicago park. Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor Juanita Irizarry ac­knowl­edges their case can’t pre­vail legally, so in­stead, “we want to make sure the least dam­age to the park takes place and that we get green space back else­where in the com­mu­nity to make up for the green space ameni­ties taken up by the li­brary.” She is pleased that the foun­da­tion now seems to be re­think­ing a plan to build an above­ground park­ing garage on the site, which she ar­gues would be a “fur­ther en­croach­ment on the lo­cal green space.”

And while re­ject­ing calls to sign the “com­mu­nity ben­e­fits agree­ment” pushed for by ac­tivists, the foun­da­tion has been mak­ing nice on that front. Mike Straut­ma­nis, the foun­da­tion’s vice pres­i­dent of civic en­gage­ment, said the real prob­lem with the con­tract is that “it’s not in­clu­sive enough,” and that Obama wants to see more ag­gres­sive steps taken to launch South Siders into last­ing ca­reers.

Some ac­tivists re­main un­con­vinced, and they are lean­ing on the city to sign onto the bind­ing con­tract they want. “The sort of mu­si­cal-chairs game that is at play with low-in­come and work­ing fam­i­lies across the city has to stop,” said Jawanza Malone, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Ken­wood-Oak­land Com­mu­nity Or­ga­ni­za­tion, which in 2015 or­ga­nized a hunger strike to get a neigh­bor­hood school re­opened.

She still wants to see the cen­ter built, though. “This ef­fort is not anti-Barack Obama,” she said. “It is not anti-Obama pres­i­den­tial cen­ter.”

Obama may be fac­ing more con­tention about the con­struc­tion of his li­brary than most for­mer pres­i­dents. But oth­ers have typ­i­cally tucked theirs into sprawl­ing suburbs or univer­sity cam­puses. Obama is in­tent on build­ing his in the city, play­ing on the flow of an ur­ban com­mu­nity, and fo­cus­ing on the power of com­mu­nity or­ga­niz­ing as a cen­tral prin­ci­ple.

ALEX WONG / GETTY IMAGES

For­mer Pres­i­dent Barack Obama speaks as he cam­paigns for Vir­ginia Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam in Oc­to­ber. Northam, a Demo­crat, topped Repub­li­can Ed Gillespie on Tues­day in the Vir­ginia gov­er­nor’s race.

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