At South Side meeting, disputes erupt over Obama library

By Emily Hoerner

Nearly 1,000 community leaders and residents gathered in Hyde Park for a public meeting Tuesday night, where tensions flared over using roughly 20 acres of Chicago Park District land for the Barack Obama Presidential Library.

The two sites, Washington Park and Jackson Park, proposed by the University of Chicago belong to the Chicago Park District. If the Barack Obama Foundation chooses either bid, the land would have to be acquired by the city.

Washington Park and Jackson Park
Washington Park and Jackson Park are two Chicago sites being proposed for Obama’s library. (Image from the University of Chicago)

Hyde Park resident the Rev. Dr. Leon Finney said he doesn’t believe the project is a “land grab” that would harm the parks. The South Side neighborhoods he grew up in are in dire need of help that the library could provide, he said.

“We need an economic stimulus to overcome the poverty, the slum,” said Finney, the pastor of Metropolitan Apostolic Community Church.

The library and museum could bring 3,300 construction jobs, 800,000 annual visitors and bring in $220 million annually, according to University of Chicago projections announced at the meeting.

When Little Rock, Arkansas, opened the William J. Clinton Presidential Center in 2004, Little Rock Chamber of Commerce President Jay Chesshir said the library “transformed” what was once a brownfield, warehouse zone in the city.

“We went through a time there in Little Rock when everyone moved out,” Chesshir said. “The presidential center announcement gave people reasons to look back within for opportunity.”

Promises of improving the economic situation in Chicago’s South Side was a common theme among those who took to the microphone to share their thoughts.

Shanice McDonald, a Woodlawn resident, said she doesn’t care whether the library is in a park or not, as long as it comes to the South Side.

“I think it’s really absurd that they don’t even want it to come just because it’s on park district land,” McDonald said.

Crowd at public library hearing
The crowd had strong reactions to public statements regarding the University of Chicago’s presidential library bid. (Emily Hoerner/MEDILL)

But fervor for preserving the parks could also be heard loudly at the meeting.

Cassandra Francis, president of Friends of the Parks, an organization that gained recognition after filing a federal lawsuit against plans for the George Lucas’ museum on Chicago’s lakefront, said Chicagoans deserve their open space.

“The erosion of this park land and confiscation of this park land sets a dangerous precedent,” Francis said after the meeting.

Mayoral candidates Bob Fioretti and Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who oppose the use of the park district land, spoke at the event.

Attendee Bobbie Townsend said she hopes the library won’t use park space because she thinks there are other South Side neighborhoods, like Altgeld Gardens, that need the library. She said she is wary of the economic promises of improvement, believing permanent jobs at the library won’t go to community residents anyway, eventually gentrifying the area.

“[The University of Chicago] is trying to make Bronzeville beige instead of brown,” Townsend said.