Who will pro­tect stately trees from the Obama Cen­ter?

Chicago Sun-Times - - OPINION - BY JOHN VUKMIROVICH John Vukmirovich is a Chicago- area writer, re­searcher and book re­viewer.

Iknow I’m odd, as trees still mean some­thing to me. As a so- called civ­i­liza­tion, we seem to be more adept at cut­ting down trees, rather than plant­ing or pre­serv­ing them. When spring ar­rived, I promised my­self that I would spend more time with trees than usual, learn­ing to iden­tify new ones and to ap­pre­ci­ate them all more than I al­ready do. And trees re­ally don’t be­long to any­one; they are a rare form of pub­lic prop­erty.

I have some long- time fa­vorites: black wal­nut and its beau­ti­ful wood; red mul­berry and paw­paw with their sweet, de­li­cious fruits; and the east­ern cot­ton­wood and its tow­er­ing, shade- cast­ing pres­ence.

The cot­ton­wood is the most com­mon tree in North Amer­ica east of the Mis­sis­sippi. At the Wolf Lake Over­look on the far South­east Side, there are spec­i­mens over 50 feet tall with mas­sive trunks. If one were to cut one down — in one’s imag­i­na­tion of course! — the stump could eas­ily sit four peo­ple for din­ner. Long ago, on a blue fall day un­der a high, bright sun, I came to as­so­ci­ate the sound of the wind high in the cot- ton­woods there with the sound of time it­self.

In Harold Wash­ing­ton Park, between Hyde Park Boule­vard and Lake Shore Drive, there are cot­ton­wood spec­i­mens with cir­cum­fer­ences of roughly 10 to 12 feet. And so too for Jack­son Park, es­pe­cially between Stony Is­land Boule­vard and Cor­nell Drive, land that will be part of ( or rather sub­sumed by) the Obama Pres­i­den­tial Cen­ter. The cot­ton­woods there are lofty, leafy and stately; there is a sense of grav­i­tas to them. For decades — for some per­haps a cen­tury? — they have wel­comed thou­sands into the cool­ness of their shade.

With the ground­break­ing on the cen­ter sched­uled for some- time next year, I won­der what will hap­pen to those cot­ton­woods. Will they be cut down, pre­served or re­placed with lesser species? Cheap sil­ver maples come to mind.

But those de­ci­sions are in the hands of the Obama Foun­da­tion, and sadly, I have come to see the foun­da­tion as a form of shadow govern­ment. Take, for ex­am­ple, the newly formed non­profit, an­cil­lary to the foun­da­tion, that will chan­nel the sup­posed eco­nomic stim­u­lus gen­er­ated by the cen­ter into the ad­ja­cent neigh­bor­hoods. At the end of Au­gust, Lynn Sweet wrote a col­umn in which ap­peared the names of those be­hind that en­tity (“Neigh­bor­hood coat­tails,” Aug. 30). Not one name listed be- longed to an elected of­fi­cial. Two do work within the city govern­ment, but both hold ap­pointed po­si­tions.

Is this also true then for the foun­da­tion as a whole? Sadly, I be­lieve this is so. The city has given de­ci­sion- mak­ing con­trol over a large sec­tion of pub­lic land to a pri­vate en­tity that is not ac­count­able to the pub­lic. A shadow govern­ment unto it­self.

I would ar­gue, how­ever, that the sit­u­a­tion must change, and soon. Start­ing Oct. 24, both the Illi­nois House and Sen­ate will en­ter the fall veto ses­sion. One of the items to be con­sid­ered is whether the state should give $ 100 mil­lion to the Obama Foun­da­tion for the presi- den­tial cen­ter. As we have al­ready given them pre­cious pub­lic land, es­sen­tially for free, I say, “No!”

How­ever, if the foun­da­tion re­ceives that money, or any other amount of pub­lic tax dol­lars, the foun­da­tion and Mr. Obama are then eth­i­cally ac­count­able to the pub­lic, and es­pe­cially to the res­i­dents of the neigh­bor­hoods that hope to most di­rectly ben­e­fit from the pres­i­den­tial cen­ter. Pub­lic money de­mands pub­lic ac­count­abil­ity.

But here I’ve wan­dered off the path by talk­ing about money and pol­i­tics, when I wanted to talk about trees. It would be nice, then, if the foun­da­tion saw fit to save and nur­ture the trees in Jack­son Park, in­cor­po­rat­ing those stately cot­ton­woods into the over­all de­sign of the cen­ter. Af­ter all, those trees are long- stand­ing mem­bers of the com­mu­nity and they should en­joy some rights. Sav­ing those trees would be a way for the foun­da­tion, and Mr. Obama, to step out of the dark opaque shad­ows and into the cool trans­par­ent shade of those neigh­borly cot­ton­woods.

But only time will tell.

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