Public meeting pits OPC supporters against naysayers

Panelists (left to right) Naomi Davis, founder of Blacks in Green, Charles Birnbaum, founder of The Cultural Landscape Foundation, Barbara Ransby, University of Illinois Chicago Professor of History and panel moderator, WJT Mitchell, University of Chicago Professor of English and Art History and symposium convener, listen as Jawanza Malone, executive director of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, speaks during the question and answer period of “The Obama Center: A Symposium at The University of Chicago” in Kent Hall Auditorium, 1028 E. 58th St., Wednesday, March 7. – Marc Monaghan

By WENDELL HUTSON
Freelance Writer

A Wednesday community meeting where the proposed Obama Presidential Center was discussed included back and fourth comments from Chicago residents divided over the library’s long-term effect on South Side neighborhoods.

More than 100 people including residents from Hyde Park, Washington Park, Woodlawn, Bronzeville, and Jackson Park attended the two-hour meeting at the University of Chicago. The symposium was held as a follow-up to a Jan. 4 letter signed by 200 members of the University of Chicago faculty, who support the OPC being built on the South Side but have concerns about specific aspects of the project.

Panelists were Barbara Ransby, professor of African American Studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago, who also served as the moderator; Naomi Davis, founder of Blacks in Green and Bronzeville Regional Collective; Jawanza Malone, executive director for the nonprofit Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization; Jacqueline Stewart, director of the South Side Home Movie Project; and Charles Birnbaum, president and CEO of The Cultural landscape Foundation in Washington, D.C.

Brenda Nelms of Jackson Park Watch holds up a flyer expressing her organization’s desire to explore alternatives to the closing of South Cornell Drive during the development of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park, as one of several audience members asked by organizers of “The Obama Center: A Symposium at The University of Chicago” to make a statement during the question and answer session following the Symposium’s panel discussion in Kent Hall Auditorium, 1028 E. 58th St., Wednesday, March 7. – Marc Monaghan

The biggest sticking point between residents and community groups was the absence of a Community Benefits Agreement, which the nonprofit Obama Foundation has been reluctant to do.

Malone said while he supports the Obama Presidential Center (OPC) he is worried the project could displace residents.

“We have a situation where the Obama Presidential Center can very well be a Trojan horse that’s going to drive displacement and gentrification in this part of town [that being the neighborhoods surrounding Jackson Park],” Malone said. “I say that because the Obama Foundation has refused to enter into a Community Benefits Agreement despite knowing the city of Chicago has a history of displacing residents with big projects like this one.”

A Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) is a contract signed by community groups and a real estate developer that requires the developer to provide specific amenities to the local community or neighborhood. In exchange, the community groups agree to publicly support the project, or at least not oppose it.

The Obama Library South Side Community Benefits Agreement Coalition is spearheading a campaign by other community groups to have a written agreement in place before the library is built by 2021.

Juanita Irizzary, executive director of Friends of the Parks, expresses her organization’s position that the Obama Presidential Center “should not be located in a park” and that any park acreage taken by the OPC be replaced, as one of several several audience members asked by organizers of “The Obama Center: A Symposium at The University of Chicago” to make a statement during the question and answer session following the Symposium’s panel discussion in Kent Hall Auditorium, 1028 E. 58th St., Wednesday, March 7. – Marc Monaghan

Officials from the Obama Foundation, Chicago Park District, city of Chicago or the University of Chicago did not attend the March 7 meeting, and did not return phone calls to the Herald seeking comment.

However, at a Feb. 27 community meeting at McCormick Place, President Barack Obama made a surprise visit and ensured attendees that his library would be a benefit to the South Side.

“We will not displace residents. A lot of people get nervous about gentrification and understandably so,” Obama said. “When I first came to Chicago in 1985 on the South Side it was not my experience during that time that the biggest problem on the South side was too much development or too much economic activity or too many people being displaced.”

And because the library is being built with private donations and not tax dollars, the former president said that’s why the Obama Foundation would not enter into a CBA.

“I actually think it’s admirable and important that communities, when they’ve got big projects coming in, are paying attention to who’s building, who’s benefiting and who’s getting the jobs,” Obama said. “But what I said before in previous community meetings and I just want to repeat, we are not coming in here as a for-profit organization. I’m out there raising a bunch of money to get this thing built, to get the programming up and running. I’m not getting a salary out of the Foundation.”

Liz Moyer, University of Chicago Associate Professor of Geophysics who also works with students at Robert Lindblom Math & Science Academy in the West Englewood neighborhood, said, “I look around this audience and I see a bunch of displeased white people complaining about things in their backyard, and we are not the people who should be talking …The point of the Center in Obama’s vision is to benefit children on the South Side; it’s not to benefit a bunch of rich white, Hyde Parkers.” – Marc Monaghan

One Woodlawn resident, Jeanette Taylor, addressed the panel about her experience with being displaced due to a high-profile development, and why a CBA is needed.

“I have seen poor people pushed out of their neighborhood all because of a development and that’s exactly what the presidential library will do,” said Taylor, a 42-year-old single mother of five children. “I used to live in Bronzeville but when the Harold Washington Cultural Center was built [at 4701 S. King Drive] it drove up property taxes so landlords went up on rent forcing lower-income individuals like myself to move.”

Taylor, a community organizer, added that Woodlawn was the only nearby neighborhood where she was able to find a five-bedroom apartment for $1,000 per month, which is what she paid when she lived in Bronzeville.

“I am tired of investments coming to poor, black and brown communities that ends up kicking residents out of their communities,” she said. “The president [Barack Obama] is misleading and out of touch with the community when he says gentrification would not occur as a result of his library being built in Jackson Park.”

But not everyone at the meeting was against the OPC being built on parkland in Jackson Park or anywhere else on the South Side.

Peri Irmer, CEO and president of the DuSable Museum of African American History, expresses her frustration with the opposition to the placement of the Obama Presidential Center (OPC) in Jackson Park and with the insistence that a community benefits agreement be signed with the OPC, as the OPC is a once-in-a-life-time opportunity for the South Side that shouldn’t be jeopardize, during the question and answer period of “The Obama Center: A Symposium at The University of Chicago” in Kent Hall Auditorium, 1028 E. 58th St., Wednesday, March 7. – Marc Monaghan

Historian Timuel Black, 99, said while he would have preferred the OPC to be built in Washington Park, where Obama started his career as a community organizer, he still supports it being built in Jackson Park.

“President Obama could have chosen anywhere in America to build his library and he chose Chicago’s South Side. That is something all of us should be proud of and should embrace,” said Black.

And other OPC supporters cautioned those who opposed the use of parkland being used or not having a CBA in place.

“You cannot have progress without some change. But at the same time you have to be careful about how you go about expressing your concerns,” said Perri Irmer, Hyde Park resident and CEO of the DuSable Museum of African American History. “Look what happened to the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art when it was supposed to be built near Soldier Field. The Friends of the Parks shut it down with a lawsuit and now jobs and $600 million a year will go to San Francisco instead.”

hpherald@hpherald.com