Obama library in Chicago: What it means for city's South Side – and Obamas

Chicago's diverse South Side has long yearned for economic development and improved amenities. Will the Barack Obama Presidential Center deliver? 

Jacquelyn Martin/AP/File
President Obama, accompanied by first lady Michelle Obama, speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington in March. The Obamas announced Tuesday that the South Side of Chicago would be home to the Barack Obama Presidential Center.

It always seemed logical that Barack Obama’s presidential library and museum would wind up in Chicago – and specifically, on the city’s economically and racially diverse South Side.

President Obama found his political voice there – first as a community organizer, then as a state senator, before reaching the pinnacle of American power. His wife, Michelle, grew up there and they started their family there. They both worked at the University of Chicago, he teaching law, she at the medical center. They still own a home there.

But for both Chicago and the South Side, the path to victory as the home of the future Barack Obama Presidential Center, announced Tuesday, was anything but straightforward. All the other bids – from New York City, Hawaii, and the University of Illinois at Chicago – had their own logic as well, but came up short. 

And the South Side location remains controversial: Gaining access to public parkland the University of Chicago wants to use for the project required the intervention of the state legislature. In January, protesters staged a die-in, demanding the university reopen its trauma center before building a library. 

But the university has prevailed, and now the planning can begin, including determining which of the two public parks to use for the project, Washington Park or Jackson Park.

“The mid-South Side is a wonderful patchwork of many different communities that have strong assets, but [the neighborhood] has seen tremendous population and job loss,” says MarySue Barrett, president of the city’s Metropolitan Planning Council. “Having a new anchor for the neighborhood, with its employment, but also its prestige, and its draw of visitors from near and far, is a big attraction.”

The Barack Obama Presidential Center is projected to bring $600 million in economic development to the neighborhood, eliciting a mixture of hope and anxiety from neighborhood residents. Hope springs from the prospect of greater business opportunities, lower crime, and a nicer streetscape. Anxiety comes from the possibility of gentrification, in which current residents can be effectively forced out and the mom-and-pop shops that have persevered for decades are replaced by chains.

"We’ve seen a lot of development that has gone on in Chicago over the years that has not been so neighborhood oriented,” says Walter Podrazik, who teaches communications at the University of Illinois at Chicago and served on the UIC committee that prepared the school’s bid for the library. “It's a big deal to have something like this on the map."

One expert on presidential libraries warns that the economic impact of such a project could easily be overestimated. Presidential libraries open to great fanfare, only to see interest drop off and administrators scramble to bring in flashy attractions to get people in the door, says Anthony Clark, author of the book, “The Last Campaign: How Presidents Rewrite History, Run for Posterity and Enshrine Their Legacies.”

One presidential library that did succeed in turning around a blighted neighborhood is former President Clinton’s in Little Rock, Ark.  

“In Little Rock, data do show that the library was having an impact on the city,” says Mr. Clark. “They took over a derelict warehouse district,” and it’s now a thriving area, called the River Market district.

The United States currently has 13 federal presidential libraries, which attract 2 million visitors a year. Organizers predict the Obama Center alone will attract 800,000 people a year. But how much money that might represent is debatable. Clark says estimates that each visitor will add between $100 to $200 to the local economy per visit are overblown, as they are based on an assumption that these visitors are out-of-town tourists, staying at hotels and eating in restaurants.

Still, Clark acknowledges, Obama’s historic role as the nation’s first black president could make his library different.

“The Obama library, yes, will definitely have a greater impact and a greater interest than others,” Clark says.

The Obamas also could use the South Side center to focus on one of their stated goals of life post-presidency: to help lift up minority communities. Last year when Mr. Obama unveiled My Brother’s Keeper, an initiative focused on boys and young men of color, he came to the South Side to highlight a local program. In the video announcing the site selection, Obama discussed the role his center could play.  

“With a library and a foundation on the South Side of Chicago, not only will we be able to encourage and effect change locally, but what we can also do is to attract the world to Chicago,” Obama says.

It’s not clear, though, that the Obamas themselves will resettle in Chicago after they leave the White House. There have long been rumblings that they might end up in New York. One news report said that Mrs. Obama favored her husband’s alma mater Columbia University, which proposed building the library on its new campus in Harlem. Instead, the Barack H. Obama Foundation, currently in Chicago, will move to that Harlem campus, though some foundation activities will remain in Chicago.

Another finalist for the library, Hawaii, also had obvious logic as Obama’s childhood home, but its distance from the mainland United States weighed against it.

So Chicago it is – but even there, the other finalist for the project, the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), made a compelling case for its bid, in the eyes of one Chicago Tribune columnist.

“The UIC's main site would generate economic growth in a poor, mostly black neighborhood, of the kind where Obama worked as a community organizer,” wrote Steve Chapman. “It would produce far less political and legal conflict” than the University of Chicago plan.

UIC in North Lawndale, on Chicago’s West Side, would have put the library and museum on what is now a vacant lot.

Instead, by going with the South Side proposal, the University of Chicago is taking over nearby public parkland; both parks under consideration were designed by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. The city and park district have promised to make up for the loss in a way that is a net “park positive,” according to the Chicago Sun Times, though what that means remains unclear.

The project also involves some major-league fundraising. Presidential libraries are built with private donations, but taxpayers foot the bill – $66 million last year – to keep them running. The National Archives and Records Administration is in charge of former presidents’ papers.

Still, Ms. Barrett of the Metropolitan Planning Council anticipates upgrades to the infrastructure on the South Side. She also sees the Obama Center as the next chapter in Chicago’s historic knack for reinvention.

“The city of Chicago and the Chicago region is a place that’s famous for remaking itself,” Barrett says. “Our history is intertwined with the Great Chicago Fire, way back in 1871. It decimated the city, and then the city came roaring back within a decade.”

Today, the announcement of the new library and museum, scheduled to open in 2021, is “about celebrating the president and his legacy,” she says. “But it’s also about celebrating everything that Chicago has been and can be.”

It's also, of course, about the Obamas’ deep personal connection to one part of the city.

“One of my grandfathers, you know what we called him?” Mrs. Obama says in the announcement video. “We called him South Side.” 

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