POP’s Caplan ridicules $5 million MacArthur grant for public library at OPC

Herb Caplan (Herald file photo)

Staff writer

The MacArthur Foundation, famous for its no-strings-attached “genius” grants and philanthropic activity, has announced a $5 million grant to create a new Chicago Public Library branch at the Obama Presidential Center.

Herb Caplan, the head of Protect Our Parks (POP) which is suing to block construction of the OPC in Jackson Park, has responded by calling the donation an attempt by MacArthur President Julia Stasch “to speed-rush the Rahm Emanuel land grab coup” before she leaves the foundation this year.

In an email received by the Herald, Caplan noted Stasch’s roles in Richard M. Daley’s mayoralty and Bill Clinton’s presidency. “She is a co-conspirator now trying to make the Obama Center appear to be a legal use of public property, although it is not a presidential library as originally proposed,” he said in the email. “Why would the city ever support building a Chicago library in an historic public park instead of in one of the many underserved South Side neighborhood long waiting and needing a branch public library?

“The telling question is why suddenly now? Judge Blakey needs to be moved to enter a protective order that the MacArthur $5 million needs to be placed in escrow to enable the city to acquire private property and construction in a neighborhood desperately needing a public library. Perhaps the current Mayor Lightfoot will see the corrupt act and stop it.”

Judge Blakey is presiding over the Protect Our Parks lawsuit against the city and the Park District to block construction of the OPC in Jackson Park. Caplan said. A status hearing in the suit is scheduled for June 11. POP did not respond to requests about whether it would file a legal motion to freeze the MacArthur funds.

“A public library is an essential civic institution, a place for communities to gather and for individuals to learn about themselves and other people,” Stasch said in a statement. “Embedding a public library branch in the Obama Presidential Center will connect Chicago residents and visitors, especially youth, to each other and to a world of imagination and information.

“President Obama encourages us all to be informed civic leaders, dedicating our collective talents to making out communities, our nation and the world better, as he has done.”

The City Council approved a 5,000-square foot public library at the OPC last year; it is set to house multimedia collections, host community programming and include spaces for reading and studying that can also host open seating for events. The MacArthur grant will help fund construction of the branch and its furnishings and fixtures. Additional OPC educational and creative features are to include a music studio and space for 2- and 3-D art and design work.

“We want the Obama Presidential Center to serve as a reminder to young people around the city and the world that their potential is limitless,” said Obama Foundation Chief Engagement Officer Michael Strautmanis. “Libraries and books are windows into what is possible. Hosting this branch of the Chicago Public Library with the support of the MacArthur Foundation is a fitting way for us to honor the legacy of President Obama by inspiring, empowering and connecting people, especially young people, with resources to change their world.”

In February, Lightfoot told The Architect’s Newspaper that she supports the OPC in Jackson Park, calling it “a significant investment in a community that needs it” while reiterating her support for a community benefits agreement to guide issues stemming from its establishment with the surrounding communities.

According to the MacArthur statement, 200,000 people in 2017 visited the Blackstone branch of the library, 4904 S. Lake Park Ave., and the Coleman branch, 731 E. 63rd St., in 2017. They are the nearest branch libraries to the planned site of the OPC.

At a meeting Thursday regarding the Community Benefits Agreement, Tara Madison with Southside Together Organizing for Power, said, “The fact that a library that will be put on Jackson Park because of the Obama Foundation — we haven’t had a decent library in Woodlawn or Washington Park. Right now, the two you could put together wouldn’t make a whole one. So, this gives our children a safe and up-to-date, technology-wise, opportunity for learning. It will encapsulate the African-American history here.”