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.”
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.
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.