By AARON GETTINGER
Former President Barack Obama made a surprise appearance at The Obama Foundation in Harper Court today, thanking Foundation workers, luminaries like Leon Finney and Timuel Black, Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) and other stakeholders for their support of the Obama Presidential Center (OPC), which he believes “will end up being one of the wonderful institutions of Chicago.”
Obama acknowledged the OPC would not be a quick project. He expressed hope, however, that generations of Chicagoans would enjoy it for years to come and that it would be an “anchor for the kinds of renewal and economic activity and opportunity that so many of you have worked for, for so very long.”
He said work would be done alongside the crowd to complete the OPC on schedule and on budget, saying “we’re well on the way to raising the money that’s necessary to make it happen.”
Much of the speech was a paean to Hyde Park; he noted that his first Chicago apartment was only a few blocks away, at 51st Street and Blackstone Avenue, and that he built his family and political life here.
“This is where I became a man,” he said. “This is where I learned how to work in communities. This is where I came to the belief that when you involve people and engage people and empower people that good things happen.”
Obama said he and the former First Lady Michelle Obama wanted to ensure the OPC was “a tribute to all the people and the forces in the community that help to make this so special,” that it stood “consistent” with the other lakefront museums, alluding to the underdevelopment of the South Side compared with the North Side of the Chicago. He used the phrase “Museum Campus South,” one that could match the one downtown.
“How do we make sure the community benefits from our presence?” Obama asked, answering that the OPC construction is guided by “making sure we’re involved with the community and the process,” lessons he learned as a young man on the South Side.
Each stage of planning had been an improvement over the last, “because all of you know what the community needs — better, in some cases, than we did — and all of you weren’t shy about telling us what was needed to make sure this was effective,” he said to laughs.
Obama Foundation CEO David Simas and Chief Engagement Officer Michael Stautmanis hosted a question-and-answer forum with the crowd before and after Obama’s speech.
Union ironworker Japlan Allen praised the jobs that building the OPC would bring to the community and looked forward to its completion.
“When my children want to go on a field trip to the Obama museum, I’m taking off work, because I’m going with them,” she said.
Jahkin Jackson, 10, a student at Ray Elementary School, echoed these sentiments, saying how much he looked forward to visiting the OPC.
“I cannot wait for the day that those doors open on that museum and for you to walk in and just see what is possible,” Simas said to Jackson.