To the Editor:
The recommended Chicago site for the Obama Presidential Library must be the best that this city can offer — not just on the South Side. Chicago is a world class city. The site for the Obama Presidential Library and Museum must be the most aesthetically beautiful and the most historically and culturally significant. The site must show promise in its economic development impact and range of rich community opportunities. The 58-plus acre lakefront park, now known as the South Shore Cultural Center, provides the perfectly exquisite location to honor President Barack Obama and embody his community development philosophies.
The worn trope, “If you live in Chicago and can’t see Lake Michigan, you might as well live in Iowa,” is particularly apt in this case. The South Shore Cultural Center (SSCC) site, now owned by the Chicago Park District, is likely the most beautiful setting one could imagine. The downtown skyline is a magnificent backdrop because of the lake’s south side edge. The daytime light brings every roofline and skyscraper in focus, and at night the building lights only compete with the stars. Located on US Route 41, the historic Lake Shore Drive gently curves past the Museum of Science and Industry, the University of Chicago, the 18-hole Jackson Park Golf Course and two South Shore marinas. At the boundary on 71st Street, SSCC gives way to lakeside single-family homes and vintage apartment buildings to the south, and the South Shore commercial corridor to the west.
This is such a Chicago story! The likes of Lawrence Heyworth, Marshall Field and A. Montgomery Ward contributed to purchase this unimproved land in 1906. All members of the Commercial Club, an exclusive “city club” that sponsored the 1909 Plan of Chicago, co-authored by Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett. It was not by accident that the most southern stretch of the largest 18-hole golf course in Jackson Park, a creation of the Burnham Plan stops at 67th street on the south side of South Shore Drive, and the front door to the South Shore Country Club was directly across the street at 67th Street. This 58-acre lakefront property was never intended for “the people;” it was intended for very rich, white, Protestant Chicagoans. For decades, the South Shore Country Club was a playground for Chicago’s rich.
The exclusive Country Club sparked commercial development along 71st Street, with the Illinois Central (now Metra) passenger trains running down the center of the street. The Country Club historically excluded Blacks, Jews and Irish Catholics as members. Through the early 1950s, the people who lived in South Shore were all white, including Jews and Irish Catholics. But by the end of the ‘50s African Americans and Hispanics began to move into this desirable area. Chicago’s infamous residential “white flight” took hold and turned blocks from white to Black, from wealthy to blighted in a few short years. The exclusive South Shore Country Club was abandoned and soon fell into disrepair. The only potential buyer was The Nation of Islam, known as the Black Muslims in Chicago. They proposed to build a hospital that would extend the health care corridor with La Rabida to the north and the new hospital to the south.
The residents of the South Shore community rallied and actively advocated that the land be used for something and not just sink into further disrepair. The community advocates were most vocal about the beach — that it remains public with free access to the lakefront beach, and the restoration of the “Club House” now known as the Cultural Center. The city was generally opposed to the purchase of the land by the Nation of Islam, even though NOI proposed a hospital. The city then offered to purchase the land at the same price the NOI had offered. The land is now owned and managed by the Chicago Park District. And in their persistence, the South Shore community advocates won! In 1974, the Chicago Park District took control of the site. A year later, the “Club House” now the Cultural Center, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Open to the public, the South Shore Cultural Center is the pride of the community, the jewel in our neighborhood crown. Its preservation and future have been closely nurtured and guarded. The Chicago Park District and the South Shore Advisory Council have, together, preserved and restored this magnificent building and managed this site and its programs. But here we are 40 years later with an increasingly disinvested neighborhood, little economic or commercial development, and a lovely 58-acre lakefront property that is vastly underused. The South Shore community has always known that this parcel has a higher purpose.
The Obama Presidential Library and Museum on Chicago’s South Side would, according to an economic study done for the University of Chicago, lure enough visitors for 30 restaurants and 11 retailers nearby, create demand for a new hotel near the site, bolster state and local tax revenues and spur other development and jobs.
From a jewel to a crown, from class and racial divisions to the extraordinary, his 58-plus-acre site could become a world symbol. A classic Chicago irony! I urge the Obama Presidential Library board members to choose the bid that recommends development of the South Shore Cultural Center site. I know that South Shore residents and community groups will galvanize whatever professional and local support required.
R. Susan Motley