Even before the house lights came up, the front row recognized who was walking out and erupted in cheers of yeeeah and ooh wow. Without introduction, and to the crowd’s surprise, former President Barack Obama stepped on stage at McCormick Place for the Presidential Center’s public meeting Tuesday night.
Obama came with a clear message, and asked Chicago to trust his vision and ability to create a vibrant, hopeful community jewel on the South Side. He talked about deciding where to put the Presidential Center—mainly that there really wasn’t much to decide. It’s where he got his first community organizing job, he met Michelle and had his two daughters there and he was elected president because of the South Side, he said. There was a reason he chose Jackson Park too.
“What I thought to myself was, if we’re building a world class institution, if we are bringing to bear all these resources, all this money, all this talent and and creating all these programs then there was the possibility that not only could the center thrive, but it could anchor a transformation. Create more jobs, more business opportunities, more educational opportunities, more hope. It would send a message to young people on the south side that you count, you matter. And that the parks on the South Side should look like the parks on the North Side. That they should be as vibrant and have as many amenities and have as much programming.”
What makes a great park is the activity, life, and movement, he said. It is a lived space, that’s the point. Looking at Millennium Park with the ice skating rinks, rock climbing walls, art exhibits, Pritzker Pavilion, constant stream of events and the amenities in other vibrant parks of the world—that is what he hopes to generate in Jackson Park.
Since the center was announced, its location, design, landscaping and many other things have been criticized by residents, organizations, and institutions in the community. The lack of transparency from the Obama Foundation is another common complaint.
During his speech Obama spoke directly to this, acknowledging that changes have to be made in order to create a vibrant, active community and launch the next generation of leadership.
“A project of this size is complicated. And I know that—in part because historically on the South Side of Chicago as is true for many communities that sometimes are under resourced—there’s a feeling of stuff being done to us rather than for us,” Obama said.
Obama reiterated all the outreach and opportunities to give feedback his foundation has done and plans to continue doing throughout the entire process. The whole evening was dedicated to feedback through breakout sessions covering the design, landscaping, programming, and community benefit.
While Obama was not part of these conversations—the architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien along with others from the project and the city were there to listen. And while that might have comforted some, there are still plenty of skeptics.
With a firm hand he told the audience, “At some point were gonna have to get going.”
This was the last public meeting of six public meetings the organization has hosted. The next step in the process will be to get approval from the city’s planning commission.
One of the major concerns is that current residents will get pushed out of their neighborhood because of skyrocketing rents. This was brought up again when Obama took a few questions from the audience. A South Side resident wanted to know what he was doing to protect the people that live near Jackson Park.
He pledged to work with organizations to ensure affordable housing in the area for seniors, disabled people, or those on a fixed income. But for rising rents on market rate housing, there’s not much that can be done.
“You can’t say we want more jobs, more businesses, more opportunities for our kids but have everything else stay the same,” he said. “If you go into some neighborhoods in Chicago where there are no jobs, no businesses, nothing is going on—the rents pretty cheap. But our kids are also getting shot on that block.”
Obama said he wants to create more jobs, give kids opportunities, and give the school’s a better tax base—so if the rent goes up, people can pay because they’ve got more money.
He also touched on the type of programming that the center plans to offer which includes partnering with local schools, universities, and employers. Some of which the foundation plans to test out this year. Workshops, internships, and mentoring will be provided for young people who want to fix issues in their community.
The center wants to support those who have organizing experience and also those who want to get involved but don’t know how. Programs on everything from coding to athletics to the college application process are planned as well. Obama even mentioned bringing in Chance or Jay-Z to the recording studio to work with young artists.
Many of the anxieties felt by South Side residents were touched on throughout his speech. He validated these feelings but ultimately downplayed some concerns, reminding everyone that his intention is to create something that benefits the community and that he’s not profiting from this.
Whether or not you trust Obama’s abilities or intentions, his pitch for the center was heartfelt and clearly argued. He was asking for the people’s trust, and cited the politician that inspired him to come to Chicago in the first place.
“Here’s the thing. You can never make folks 100 percent happy. We want to be open and we want to listen. We are going to be ‘fairer than fair,’ to quote Harold Washington, in how we approach the design of this Presidential Center.”