Imagine if New York said that the only way to build a presidential library for President Barack Obama was by carving 20 acres out of Central Park. The bid would be laughed out of court, right? People use that park. It was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. It’s Central Park! Threats of impeachment have been issued over less.
Yet the University of Chicago and the Barack Obama Foundation mean to confiscate at least 20 acres of historic parkland from the South Side of Chicago in order to build an Obama presidential center. In fact, the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois have already signed off on those plans. The park takeover was a fait accompli by the time President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama announced the Chicago pick this morning.
Given the First Family’s longstanding roots in the city, it was hardly a shocker that the foundation picked Chicago’s South Side over competing bids based in Honolulu and New York. But the selection is a sore point for many—especially the people who use the parks that are being sized up for a new presidential library and museum center.
The University of Chicago, the academic partner for the Barack Obama Foundation in this endeavor, is weighing two sites for the center: Washington Park and Jackson Park. The university owns neither. Both are historic public parks designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the landscape architects who designed Central Park.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel pledged to “move heaven and earth” to put Obama’s library in Chicago, but in the end, he didn’t need to. A bill drafted by Mayor Emanuel to allow Chicago parkland to be used for a presidential library was passed by both chambers of the Illinois legislature within a single day. Governor Bruce Rauner signed the bill into law earlier this month.
Friends of the Parks, a Chicago grassroots organization, and the Cultural Landscape Foundation, a national advocacy group, both oppose any decision to use historic parkland to build a presidential center—even one that could bring jobs and tourism to South Side neighborhoods lacking both. Park groups aren’t alone, either. Critical editorials in The Boston Globe as well as The Chicago Maroon, the University of Chicago student newspaper, have appealed the use of parkland while supporting the selection of Chicago.
Mary Pattillo, a professor of sociology and African American studies at Northwestern University,* has written that there’s “plenty of good room” in Chicago for an Obama library and museum—just not in its historic parks. These parks aren’t vacant, after all. They’re vibrant centers for public use, as Pattillo explains in the Chicago Tribune:
I run in Washington Park. There's a bridle path where Chicago's "black cowboys" ride their horses, and where it's very soft on my knees. I also run in Jackson Park in the Woodlawn community on a beautiful track across the street from Hyde Park Academy High School.
On my runs in Washington Park, I pass the older lady who always yells out "How ya doin', baaaby!" and the group of older men whose debates about politics and popular culture are almost as vigorous as their walking pace. In the summer, there are softball leagues, South Asians and West Indians playing cricket, and hundreds of barbecues. And, I swear, half the people have on Obama T-shirts!
In Jackson Park, I loop around the Latino men playing soccer, with their families cheering them on, or high school football teams that practice there.
We love that President Barack Obama still calls Chicago his hometown. Obama’s presidential library should be on the South Side—where it would add vitality to blocks and blocks of empty lots. But, instead, the University of Chicago's proposal to use parkland for the Obama library threatens to take away all of the local, unscripted, everyday life and activity I just described.
The University of Chicago has been the first to point out that the acreage used in either park would amount to less than 1 percent of the whole. That’s not the same, though, as saying that the plans will change less than 1 percent of those parks. A federally administered center will bring new standards of scrutiny and security to these neighborhood parks.
Pattillo objects to citing an Obama presidential library in either park on grounds that she summarizes as the “three Ps”: perception, permitting, and policing. For example, she asks, “Will the members of the African-American fraternity Omega Psi Phi be able to blast ‘Atomic Dog,’ hop, and bark alongside the Obama library at their fraternity picnic?”
No doubt, the South Side needs the jobs, money, and foot traffic that a presidential library may bring. But the city has plenty of space for it: Chicago owns some 79 acres of vacant land in the Washington Park area and another 63 acres of vacant land near Jackson Park. Yet alternatives to carving out space from the public trust have scarcely been explored.
In one sense, the preservationist claim is weak for Jackson Park: The original plans drawn up by Olmsted and Vaux included an administration building near the site proposed for the Obama center. The preservationist case is more intuitive for Washington Park: The university owns 11 acres adjacent to the park, and it could restrict its plans for a respectable presidential library to those grounds without confiscating any parkland at all.
Yet the preservationist claim is clearly urgent in any case. No question, if New York City were able to offer up a cherry spot in Central Park for an Obama presidential library, the President would be foolish not to consider it. But there’s also no doubt that this would never ever happen, because the powerful, wealthy New Yorkers who love Central Park would never let their elected leaders give it away to developers—no matter the incentives.
So the question for the Obamas is: What’s so different about Chicago’s South Side that its parks are worth so much less?
*Correction: This post originally misspelled the name of Mary Pattillo.