The Obama Library Skeptics

Mixed feelings on Chicago’s South Side

This illustration can only be used with the Thompson-DeVeaux story that originally ran in the 10/10/2015 issue of National Journal magazine. 
Robert Meganck
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Amelia Thomson Deveaux
Oct. 9, 2015, 5 a.m.

In the north­w­est corner of Wash­ing­ton Park, a 370-acre ex­panse on Chica­go’s South Side, there’s an ar­bor­etum that could, one day, be home to Barack Obama’s pres­id­en­tial lib­rary. In Au­gust, I drove by with Cecil­ia But­ler, the long­time pres­id­ent of the Wash­ing­ton Park Ad­vis­ory Coun­cil. “I hope, if the lib­rary goes here, they’ll find some funds to move those trees,” said But­ler, ges­tur­ing to­ward a 150-year-old stand of Burr oaks. “But maybe the trees should be the least of my wor­ries.”

In May, the South Side scored a long-awaited vic­tory when the Barack Obama Found­a­tion an­nounced that one of two city green spaces—Wash­ing­ton Park or Jack­son Park—would be home to Obama’s pres­id­en­tial lib­rary and found­a­tion of­fices. (An ex­act loc­a­tion will be se­lec­ted this winter.) The news capped a year­long search that, to many Chica­goans, was too com­pet­it­ive for com­fort. To them, the South Side, where the pres­id­ent once worked as a com­munity or­gan­izer and the first lady grew up, was the only lo­gic­al choice.

But in the neigh­bor­hoods of Wood­lawn and Wash­ing­ton Park, which bor­der the two loc­a­tions, ex­cite­ment is tempered with con­cern. That’s in no small part be­cause the lib­rary is be­ing built in part­ner­ship with the Uni­versity of Chica­go, an in­sti­tu­tion with which the sur­round­ing com­munit­ies have a tense his­tory. (Full dis­clos­ure: I’m pur­su­ing a mas­ter’s de­gree at the uni­versity’s di­vin­ity school.) “Around here, Obama is every­one’s ho­met­own hero, there’s no ques­tion about that,” says Joel Hamer­nick, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of Sun­shine Gos­pel Min­is­tries, a faith-based non­profit in Wood­lawn, where about one-third of house­holds live be­low the poverty line—and which, like Wash­ing­ton Park, lacks ba­sic amen­it­ies such as gro­cery stores. “The prob­lem is that the found­a­tion is really deal­ing with two dif­fer­ent ho­met­owns: the uni­versity and the com­munity. So far, they’ve mostly been talk­ing to the uni­versity, and that in it­self sends a mes­sage.”

The town-gown strains can be traced as far back as the 1960s, when the uni­versity star­ted to buy large swathes of prop­erty in Wood­lawn for new aca­dem­ic build­ings. Com­munity act­iv­ists fought back, try­ing to pre­serve some land for low-in­come hous­ing. “The uni­versity’s ef­forts to ex­pand the cam­pus cre­ated a lot of ill will on the part of res­id­ents,” says Larry Ben­nett, a pro­fess­or of polit­ic­al sci­ence and urb­an stud­ies at De­Paul Uni­versity. “There’s still a per­cep­tion among some that the uni­versity takes ad­vant­age of the neigh­bor­hoods around it when it wants to grow, without any com­munity con­sulta­tion.”

There’s still a perception among some that the university takes advantage of the neighborhoods around it when it wants to grow, without any community consultation. 

An­oth­er source of strife has been the uni­versity’s re­la­tion­ship to res­id­ents’ health care. First, there was the de­cision in the 1980s to shut­ter the trauma cen­ter at the Uni­versity of Chica­go Med­ic­al Cen­ter. The clos­ing, promp­ted by large fin­an­cial losses, left adult South Side vic­tims of shoot­ings, stabbings, and car ac­ci­dents fa­cing longer am­bu­lance rides than vic­tims in any oth­er part of the city. (Chil­dren need­ing trauma care were still ad­mit­ted.) Then, in 2009, the hos­pit­al’s CEO resigned over an ini­ti­at­ive—de­veloped un­der Michelle Obama dur­ing her time as a com­munity-en­gage­ment ex­ec­ut­ive for the med­ic­al cen­ter—that crit­ics said pri­or­it­ized wealth­i­er pa­tients over the poor by shunt­ing un­der­insured people with non­crit­ic­al con­di­tions away from the uni­versity’s emer­gency room and in­to com­munity med­ic­al cen­ters. (A Uni­versity of Chica­go Med­ic­al Cen­ter spokes­per­son told me that by for­ging stronger re­la­tion­ships between pa­tients and primary-care pro­viders, the pro­gram—which is still in op­er­a­tion—re­duces the need for emer­gency-room vis­its and provides bet­ter care for people with chron­ic ill­nesses.)

A year later, an 18-year-old Wood­lawn youth or­gan­izer was shot and sub­sequently died at a North Side hos­pit­al after a 27-minute am­bu­lance ride—and the com­munity cam­paign for a Level 1 trauma cen­ter began in earn­est. In 2014, the hos­pit­al raised its age lim­it for pe­di­at­ric trauma care by two years, to 17. But the lib­rary pro­ject offered act­iv­ists a tool to push for more: To them, the uni­versity’s ef­forts to bring a pres­ti­gi­ous pro­ject like the lib­rary to the South Side—while sim­ul­tan­eously re­fus­ing to in­vest in a trauma cen­ter—be­trayed a fun­da­ment­al lack of con­cern for its neigh­bors’ ba­sic needs. (The uni­versity, mean­while, main­tained that the is­sues were sep­ar­ate.)

In April, ad­voc­ates gathered for a vi­gil out­side the home of Obama Found­a­tion Chair Marty Nes­bitt. They planted white flags in the grass of Nes­bitt’s lawn to sym­bol­ize the deaths they be­lieve a trauma cen­ter could have aver­ted. The lack of ser­vices for vic­tims of vi­ol­ence is es­pe­cially troub­ling, ar­gues Veron­ica Mor­ris-Moore, one of the or­gan­izers, giv­en Pres­id­ent Obama’s em­phas­is on ex­pand­ing health care. “It’s hy­po­crisy,” she says.

Oth­er protests fol­lowed un­til, in Septem­ber, the uni­versity an­nounced that it would join forces with an­oth­er health care sys­tem to build and op­er­ate a new adult trauma cen­ter in an­oth­er South Side neigh­bor­hood, about five miles away. Mor­ris-Moore and oth­ers have ap­plauded the de­cision, but they still think the uni­versity should re­open its fa­cil­ity. Five miles, they say, is too far.

Lingering mistrust has led some res­id­ents to try to ex­tract prom­ises in writ­ing. 

In re­cent years, the school has made a con­cer­ted ef­fort to reach out to Wood­lawn and Wash­ing­ton Park. Derek Douglas, a former Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial who has been the uni­versity’s vice pres­id­ent for civic en­gage­ment since 2011, has been work­ing to im­ple­ment job-train­ing and edu­ca­tion pro­grams in nearby neigh­bor­hoods and to con­tract with loc­al busi­nesses. He ac­know­ledges that change has been slow. “There’s still un­hap­pi­ness about things that happened 40 or 50 years ago,” he tells me. “You can’t over­come a his­tory like that overnight.” Still, he says, most res­id­ents are ex­cited about the pres­id­en­tial lib­rary; he points to a tele­phone poll con­duc­ted by the uni­versity last Janu­ary, which found that 79 per­cent of re­spond­ents sup­por­ted the pro­pos­al to use South Side park­land for the lib­rary.

But linger­ing mis­trust has led some res­id­ents to try to ex­tract prom­ises in writ­ing. Last year, sev­er­al groups of Wash­ing­ton Park com­munity lead­ers and busi­ness own­ers presen­ted the found­a­tion and the uni­versity with com­munity-be­ne­fits agree­ments—con­tracts that out­line the jobs, fin­an­cial sup­port, and af­ford­able hous­ing guar­an­tees the neigh­bor­hood would re­ceive if the lib­rary were to be built there. “We’re wary of verbal agree­ments, be­cause of­ten they’re not honored,” says Donna Hamp­ton-Smith, pres­id­ent of the Wash­ing­ton Park Cham­ber of Com­merce. The pro­pos­als vary some­what in their re­quests—which are gen­er­ally vague—but the one cham­pioned by Hamp­ton-Smith in­cludes “leg­al pro­tec­tions against dis­place­ment for res­id­ents” and “cre­at­ing a Com­munity Im­pact Fund which makes sig­ni­fic­ant cap­it­al avail­able for seni­or homeown­ers, neigh­bor-in­vestors, small busi­ness start-ups, and com­munity-based ini­ti­at­ives.”

Not every­one in Wash­ing­ton Park fa­vors this ap­proach—in part be­cause they are still com­pet­ing with Wood­lawn for the pro­ject. Tor­rey Bar­rett, the founder and ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the KLEO Com­munity Fam­ily Life Cen­ter, a youth-em­power­ment non­profit, says something that sounds like an ul­ti­mat­um could res­ult in more harm than good. He agrees that the uni­versity could do more to in­vest in the neigh­bor­hoods around it and that com­munity part­ner­ships need to be a pri­or­ity for the found­a­tion. “But we need to be stra­tegic about how we ap­proach them,” he tells me. “We can’t show up with a list of de­mands be­fore Wash­ing­ton Park has even been chosen as the site and ex­pect the found­a­tion or the uni­versity to re­spond pos­it­ively.”

Wood­lawn res­id­ents have, so far, de­cided against pro­pos­ing a com­munity-be­ne­fits agree­ment. Dr. Byron Bra­zi­er, a pas­tor and non­profit lead­er, says that giv­en Wood­lawn’s long-stand­ing re­la­tion­ship with the uni­versity, a con­tract is un­ne­ces­sary: “We’re at the table, and we’ll be part of these con­ver­sa­tions.” But Mat­tie But­ler (no re­la­tion to Cecil­ia), who runs a com­munity group called Wood­lawn East Com­munity and Neigh­bors, says gentri­fic­a­tion and dis­place­ment are even now be­com­ing a real­ity. She shows me a fli­er for a newly ren­ov­ated high-rise next door to her of­fice. The rents, she says, are already too high for neigh­bor­hood res­id­ents. “This is just the be­gin­ning,” she tells me. She thinks a writ­ten deal shouldn’t be taken off the table.

At a press con­fer­ence in May, Nes­bitt seemed to dis­miss the idea of a form­al com­munity-be­ne­fits agree­ment. “The whole ini­ti­at­ive is a com­munity be­ne­fit,” he said. It could be: An eco­nom­ic-im­pact re­port com­mis­sioned by the Uni­versity of Chica­go es­tim­ates that the pres­id­ent’s lib­rary could bring in nearly 2,000 new jobs and 40 new busi­nesses. That might provide a much-needed stim­u­lus—or it could drive up rents and the cost of liv­ing. Ben­jamin Huf­bauer, a his­tor­i­an of pres­id­en­tial lib­rar­ies, says re­ports like the Uni­versity of Chica­go’s are gen­er­ally pie in the sky—and in this case, it’s vir­tu­ally im­possible to know what the eco­nom­ic im­pact will be, since the Obama lib­rary will be the first in a ma­jor urb­an area.

When asked to com­ment for this story, the Obama Found­a­tion re­spon­ded with a state­ment: “While no fi­nal de­cisions have been made, the Found­a­tion’s civic works will cer­tainly in­clude the loc­al Chica­go­land com­munity and es­pe­cially the South­side. The in­put of loc­al lead­ers and cit­izens will be crit­ic­al as we shape these ini­ti­at­ives.”

Res­id­ents of Wood­lawn and Wash­ing­ton Park hope so. “I don’t think we’re ask­ing for too much,” Cecil­ia But­ler tells me. She looks down the street at a Uni­versity of Chica­go–sup­por­ted art gal­lery and at a book­store and cof­fee shop. She’d heard that soon the book­store would start serving wine in the even­ings. “Let’s get a gro­cery store in Wash­ing­ton Park first,” she says. “Then we can talk about a wine bar.”

Amelia Thom­son-De­Veaux is a writer based in Chica­go.

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