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Chicago community embraces Obama library; fears displacement


When word spread that the Obama Presidential Center was coming to a lakefront park in Chicago, Tara Madison was elated at the idea of a gleaming facility honoring the president she supported and reviving rough sections of her neighborhood, reports the Associated Press.

Then the 52-year-old social services worker and daughter of civil rights activists began to worry luxury condos might replace subsidized housing, including where she lives with her two children and two grandchildren, and she’d be forced to move. “Because our area has become attractive to developers now, they’ll count us out,” she said.

Her sentiments represent a tangled conflict that’s unfolded since Barack Obama announced his $500 million presidential center would be built in Jackson Park, near Lake Michigan, and where he started his political career, taught law and got married: Could the legacy library of the nation’s first Black president propel the displacement of thousands of low-income Black families right in his backyard?

With construction looming and signs the neighborhood is already changing, residents are fiercely seeking safeguards for the place they also call home. The clash was the catalyst for one activist to become an alderwoman and led to both a ballot question gauging support and a resident-protections ordinance that could see a city council vote within weeks, though its chances of succeeding are uncertain. Fear of gentrification — and the racial disparities that often come with it — has existed for decades in Woodlawn and other South Side Chicago neighborhoods slow to recover from the recession.

Woodlawn, 10 miles from downtown and just steps from Jackson Park, is more than 80 percent Black, with nearly 40 percent of its 25,000 residents living below the poverty line, according to Chicago demographer Rob Paral. But there’s spillover from neighboring Hyde Park, home to the private University of Chicago, where only 30 percent of the residents are Black and 23 percent are poor.

It wasn’t too surprising when the Obama Foundation chose the area in 2016. Obama still has ties to it, including his family maintaining a home there. Chicago beat out several cities including Honolulu, Hawaii where Obama spent his early years.

“The best things that have happened to me in my life, happened in this community. Although we had a formal bidding process to determine where the presidential library was going to be, the fact of the matter was it had to be right here on the South Side of Chicago,” Obama told a crowd in 2016.

The center as proposed will display presidential artifacts and have walking paths, a public library branch and a recording studio. Unlike the other 13 presidential libraries, Obama’s will be the first fully digital one, with patrons able to access millions of emails, photos and videos from kiosks.

While Obama has touted the center as a youth leadership hub that’ll attract new businesses, some residents fear a resurgence that would push out longtime residents. The Obama library is dealing with its own issues around race and poverty. A study by neighborhood activists estimated that up to 4,500 families would be at risk of displacement with development around the center. Some groups have demanded a community benefits agreement to protect residents.

At a meeting the Obama Foundation held in September 2017, then-activist Jeannette Taylor asked if Obama would sign such an agreement. Obama, via video, said as a former community organizer in Chicago he understood the concerns. But he didn’t think a pact was necessary since the foundation, which is raising funds and overseeing construction, is a nonprofit.

“The reason we want to do it (is) because this is the community we care about,” Obama said. Activists, in protest, tried to prevent him from talking further. “He forgot the people who got him into office,” Taylor said. His response left her heartbroken, she said, and she used it to fuel her city council run. She was elected earlier this year.

The library’s economic impact is expected to be significant, something not lost on residents.

“Obama, yes! Displacement, no!” activists touting the ordinance chanted at a recent news conference. The center is expected to draw around 800,000 visitors Annually, translating into $110 million spent in the city each year, according to a 2014 University of Chicago-commissioned study.