Obamas push to build OPC in Jackson Park as economic engine for South Side

Former First Lady Michelle Obama hugs actress Yara Shahidi as former President Barack Obama speaks at the afternoon session of the 2019 Obama Summit. (Photo by Marc Monaghan)

Staff writer

Former President Barack Obama spoke strongly in favor of his decision to establish the Obama Presidential Center (OPC) in Jackson Park, saying it was appropriate to put it in the neighborhood that had been his political base and that it would bring significant development to the area.

“Our goal is to transform the world and the country and the South Side of Chicago, but in this place right now, I’ve got this building that’s going to be built, and that is an engine — a mechanism — for economic development,” he said.

He said the OPC will integrate the South Side into the city’s broader economy, provide jobs for local residents and advance surrounding neighborhoods’ economies. Those who build the OPC will be well-equipped for the next construction projects to rise.

“We have small business districts in the surrounding communities around the site where the library will be located; some of them are struggling,” he observed. Anticipating 700,000 to 800,000 OPC tourists, “We need to be working with that small local restaurant or that local print shop or what have you to say, ‘They’re coming. What do you need in order to take advantage of this stream of customers who are going to be coming?”

Flanked by Foundation Scholars, Obama said he chose the site because it was where he came of age and where his wife and their children were born.

“Where I ran my first campaign,” he said. “This was going to be the place.”

Obama did not comment on the impeachment inquiry affecting his successor or other immediate issues of national or worldwide importance, but he said the OPC will serve as a “beacon” of the Obama Foundation’s values and his political ethos.

“We are sending out a signal that the values we believe in are shared, and they are strong, and they can overcome those who would try to undermine them, and we can make progress,” he said. “The great thing about Chicago — and the South Side of Chicago in particular — is that the same hunger for change and hope and progress that exists in communities and neighborhoods all across the world, that same hunger exists here.”

So too in Chicago exists the abuse of power, greed and neglect, he said. But the OPC will be “a laboratory for us to be able to make those changes,” Obama said. “By transforming that landscape and connecting it to other places, it becomes not just where we’re talking about change: there’s a concrete manifestation.”

In the morning session, former First Lady Michelle Obama and her brother, Craig Robinson, discussed their childhood on the South Side with Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Isabel Wilkerson.

“What really matters are the values that you’re taught around that little kitchen table,” she said. “Community and family are the glue of it all, and it doesn’t matter how high or how far that you go: if you really are rooted in a place and the importance of that place, it defines you, and it defines everything you do.”

Even in childhood, Obama said she was cognizant of the disinvestment in South Shore that accompanied White flight from the neighborhood. While the she recalled everyday outings across the street to Rosenblum Park, 7547 S. Euclid Ave., to day camps at Rainbow Beach, 3111 E. 77th St., her brother remembered that disinvestment also affected the parks.

“Everybody in the neighborhood met at the park,” he said. “We played in the sandbox, and then each year, you found more and more bottles, more and more broken glass, and it was like people didn’t care about the parks. They didn’t care about where we went to play.”

The conversation eventually came to Jackson Park; Robinson said that, while it was only a mile from their South Shore home, they did not utilize it, as the family did not play golf.

But the former First Lady said there is power in its selection to host her husband’s presidential center.

“Barack’s presidential library could have been anywhere in the world, because there’s so many people who feel that he is their president,” she said. “It’s also an economic engine. It will be a visited presidential library. It’s going to be alive.”

Compared with Grant Park, which she noted received billions in city investment and a reroute of Lake Shore Drive to accommodate the Museum Campus, Jackson Park has wanted for investment. But the Museum of Science and Industry, 5700 S Lake Shore Drive, and the OPC would provide programming, she said, while associated investments would reinvigorate the park.

“There will be more than just periodic uses of the park; it will be a place where people around the world would come to visit and see not just Grant Park, but the South Side of Chicago,” Obama said.

“It’s about our neighborhood and community, and it’s about bringing life to a park that may be protected and loved by its friends, but it’s not used by the community, the people who live there,” she said. “I hope that this is something that the community feels is an asset, and it requires the trust to know that Barack and I wouldn’t bring some crap up into our neighborhood.

“The community needs an entity that’s a gathering place, a place for lifting up young people, a place that is vibrant and utilized — and if we have to do it anywhere, we should do it in our hometown.”

Celebrities such as actor Billy Porter, singer Mavis Staples, filmmaker Ava DuVernay, artist Theaster Gates, labor leader Dolores Huerta and participants in the Foundation’s many programs around the world attended the third-annual summit, held at the Illinois Institute of Technology; speakers’ remarks revolved around the theme “Places Reveal Our Purpose.”