Yes, to OPC, but not in Jackson Park


To the Editor:

My home is a two-minute walk from the controversial site for the proposed Obama Presidential Center. I was born in Hyde Park, and my family has been associated with the University of Chicago for three generations. Michelle Obama was a childhood friend, and our tiny group of local activists later became the backbone for Barack’s first bid for local office. We did the hard work of legitimizing him for both black and white voters.

I’m very proud and supportive of the Obamas. And so, it saddens me that they should be allowing their professionals to accuse me and our other friends of racism and carpetbagging. I am intimate with that land. As a Scout leader, I used to take black and white children into that very field to do map and compass exercises. I’d regularly take Lab, Ray, Murray, and Bret Harte kids out there for activities, because it was so close to schools and homes. For years I have walked over there with a folding chair to relax and get away from the stresses of the city. I know almost every tree, rise, and clearing on that historic patch of land and I favor its preservation.

Despite the Obama Foundation’s opportunistic accusations, things are not always black and white. You can’t keep using our love for the black community when you need us, and then play the race card when we disagree. You can’t baldly claim that Jackson Park is the only viable option when Woodlawn and Washington Park are sprawling with empty lots aching for your attention. And you mustn’t take your multimillion-dollar towers and earthworks and overwhelm one of the last great historic natural spaces still so well preserved. What you propose is no longer a quiet, modest library: it’s a sprawling campus that will dwarf the natural majesty of neighboring Wooded Island. You can’t treat this like Millennium Park, because that land was not already beautiful, and it was surrounded by tall buildings that could tolerate Gehry’s scale. Your architects at their computer screens can never see what is plain to the person who has walked that land 1,000 times. You mustn’t deprive future generations of this space.

I was also a co-founder of Protect Our Parks, and although I have not been involved in 10 years, I am so grateful to see my old friends standing up to this hypocrisy. To my other friends, Michelle and Barack: You know Chicago deserves this project, but please understand that the lakefront is off limits. Put your love into Woodlawn and Washington Park, where investment is desperately needed.

Peter Zelchenko