Barack Obama was home on a mission. “South Side,” he whooped, proving himself to be an insider in the community where he wants to bring his presidential center.
In February, onstage at the same convention center beside the city’s gleaming downtown where he had delivered his farewell address last year, the former president was telling stories and cracking jokes. “Doin’ some math real quick,” he said, calculating the years he had spent in Chicago before landing in Washington, D.C.
But his tone had changed from a year ago, when, on the brink of handing over power to Donald Trump, he had exuded calm. “It’s good to be home,” he had said then, speaking glowingly of Chicago as a place of purpose and goodwill: “It was on these streets where I witnessed the power of faith, and the quiet dignity of working people in the face of struggle and loss.”
On this visit, Obama delivered a sharper message about his adopted hometown, his folksy language sometimes laced with defensiveness. He described the South Side as a place of “broken curbs and trash and boarded-up buildings.” He bemoaned that the parks up north outshone the ones south of the downtown. To concerns that rents were rising, he offered, “Well, here’s the thing, is that if you go into some neighborhoods in Chicago where there are no jobs, no businesses, and nothing’s going on, in some cases the rent’s pretty cheap. But our kids are also getting shot on that block.”
His center, he said, could “anchor a transformation of the South Side.” Envisioned as a laboratory of citizenship, the Barack Obama Presidential Center will transform urban parkland into a campus with a towering museum, a stone-paneled obelisk that will rise 235 feet above a public plaza. The approximately 20-acre complex will also house an auditorium, classrooms, a test kitchen, a basketball court, and a library. It has the potential to revive struggling urban communities; Obama predicted that the center, scheduled to open in 2021, would generate thousands of jobs and $3 billion in economic activity.
“This is our gift,” he added. “This is us wanting to give back.”
Many on the South Side embrace the prospect of Obama’s contribution. But a growing community movement rejects the conditions on which Obama insists the center be built: without written guarantee that the center will benefit a city whose name has become shorthand for violence.
The place that claims the nation’s first black president as a native son is the site of a battle over a monument to his time in the White House. As statues to the Confederacy are toppled across the South—and the nation debates the politics of honoring the past—a Chicago neighborhood has become ground zero in an effort to democratize the memorialization of Obama’s legacy.
Community groups seeking a say in the planning are squaring off against the Obama Foundation, the city of Chicago, and the University of Chicago over what the project, and its namesake, owe to the South Side. Construction is set to begin this year, bringing the stone-and-glass complex to Jackson Park, which lies in Woodlawn, a gentrifying neighborhood that the sociologist William Julius Wilson described in 1996 as a quintessential “jobless ghetto.”
The Chicago skirmish belongs to a wider contest over Obama’s legacy, unfolding against the backdrop of his successor’s efforts to obliterate his influence. It has also opened a local front in a growing national anti-poverty campaign promising “the largest wave of nonviolent civil disobedience in U.S. history.” Meanwhile, the standoff has become a fault line among Democrats running for governor of Illinois, in a race that distills the dilemma facing the party nationwide: choosing between establishment candidates and a self-styled progressive bidding for grassroots support.
“One wants to see something constructed that won’t just be treated as yesterday’s mausoleum,” said Neil Harris, a scholar of architecture and cultural history at the University of Chicago. “You want a living monument, and the question is how best to provide it.”
In a windowless office on Chicago’s South Side, two community leaders gathered to explain their grievances with the former president. A tall man with a muscular frame and trim gray hair, Charles Perry spent two decades in federal prison for conspiring to sell cocaine; he now heads organizing at the Westside Health Authority. Younger and slighter, Jawanza Malone is the executive director of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization; he has worked on five continents and aims to live by the Kenyan proverb, “Treat the world well: for it was not given to you by your parents, it was lent to you by your children.”
They see Obama as a role model—and a relic of a pre-Trump era when political headwinds buffeting their work were not quite so strong. But now they think Obama is failing them, and they fear that the symbolism of his presidency is vulnerable to degradation.
“This community doesn’t need to be lectured to about the historical significance of this president,” Malone said. “What it needs is some level of control over its own future.”
Pointing to a landscape scarred by the failures of urban renewal, local activists including Malone and Perry have formed a coalition demanding a Community Benefits Agreement, or CBA. The agreement would require the Foundation to employ community members, protect low-income housing, support black businesses, and replace urban park land.
For advocates of the CBA, the question is not simply who benefits—the Foundation’s claim is that all will benefit—but who has the power to decide how benefits are assigned. While acknowledging the symbolic importance of the Obama Center, as well as its capacity to bring opportunity to the South Side, the CBA coalition seeks a “right to self-determination,” asking for some control in the project’s terms. As concerns, the coalition highlights economic development, housing, employment, education, transportation, and sustainability. The proposed agreement would develop a black business corridor; guarantee new low-income housing in the area; and require jobs, paying at least a living wage, to go to community residents, including ex-offenders and other hard-to-employ populations.
Obama sees matters differently. “We’re not gonna do that,” he maintained at the February meeting. The onetime community organizer who charts his origin story through Chicago’s South Side, who tells of listening to dreams spun in housing projects, hesitates to partner with neighborhood groups in developing his campus on the shores of Lake Michigan. He argues that a CBA is unnecessary because his center is a nonprofit. Signing an agreement with community organizations, he said, would be too unruly—and would inevitably leave some people out. “Everybody has their own organization saying we should have say, control, decision-making over who gets the contract,” he said.
In his farewell address, Obama paid tribute to the hardscrabble neighborhoods where, as he said, he “learned that change only happens when ordinary people get involved, get engaged, and come together to demand it.” That’s the credo of the CBA coalition—of the South Side’s ordinary denizens who say of his center, “Push back on being pushed out.”
The effort has been led by neighborhood groups, such as the Black Youth Project 100, the Bronzeville Regional Collective, and Southside Together Organization for Power. They have drawn support from citywide organizations, including the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, Chicago Women in Trades, Chicago Rehab Council, and the Chicago Teachers Union. A letter supporting the CBA, signed by about two hundred University of Chicago faculty members, expresses concern about “taking a large section of an historic public park and giving it to a private entity for development.” Student-led teach-ins on the South-Side campus have tied calls for a CBA to demands that the university pay reparations because of the profit its early benefactors derived from slavery.
The CBA coalition has also found an ally in the Chicago Poor People’s Campaign, a city organization that shares a name—and a mission—with a burgeoning national movement answering Trump’s first year in office with a promise to “transform the moral narrative in this country.” Six weeks of civil disobedience in twenty-five states and Washington, D.C., will conclude with a mass mobilization at the U.S. Capitol in June.
For fifteen years, the Chicago campaign has been a model for what seeking to “unite the poor” might look like, said Floyd Davis, president and co-founder of the local branch, which dates to 2003. A lifelong city resident, he said Chicago is scarred by “intergenerational poverty” fueling an epidemic of drug addition and violence. In Davis’ view, the Obama center will rise like a monument to years of neglect. He said the promise of racial progress associated with its namesake only sharpens the disrespect.
“People who’ve been there suffering have to look at this beautiful edifice being created with no real input and no benefits,” Davis said. “Everybody should be screaming about this.”
The setting for the Obama center is bleak on a wintry Chicago day. Frost covers the ground below the leafless canopies of Bur Oak trees older than the city of Chicago. Jackson Park, a 500-acre historic landmark designed by Frederick Law Olmsted for the 1893 World’s Fair, is bounded on one end by the Museum of Science and Industry and on the other by a harbor. In between lies Wooded Island, where black-crowned night herons, an endangered species in Illinois, flock to roost and feed. On summer days, Southsiders fish in the lagoons.
“For the first time, a presidential center will be in the heart of an urban community,” said Martin Nesbitt, chairman of the Obama Foundation, in naming Jackson Park as the site in 2016. That carries promise as well as risk, particularly in Woodlawn. The area was once a middle-class white neighborhood, built on the bedrock of commercial enterprise brought by the World’s Fair. But when the Supreme Court declared racially restrictive housing covenants unenforceable in 1948, black people who had come to Chicago as part of the Great Migration began moving in. White flight followed, and Woodlawn became mostly black. Jobs were scant, and lots lay vacant.
According to 2015 estimates, Woodlawn’s median household income is about $24,000, less than half of that nationwide. But with investments by the University of Chicago, its makeup is changing. The 2015 American Community Survey registered the white population at 7.7 percent. In some parts of the neighborhood, the figure could be as high as 35 percent, estimated Richard Ingram, a real estate broker who has worked in Woodlawn since the 1970s.
“Woodlawn is changing because white people feel safe, comfortable,” Ingram said.
What troubles Malone is that Woodlawn is becoming unaffordable for poor people. He said that home values rose by 23 percent in the first half of 2017, the nation’s third-highest increase compared to that in the surrounding metro area, figures corroborated by the real estate brokerage Redfin. “Obama should take his name off the development,” Malone said, observing that already the typical resident must work several jobs to afford rent. “Regardless of what the president hopes to achieve, if there is no check on what the mayor can do with the center, it’s going to be a tool to displace low-income people and people of color.”
Michael Strautmanis, a staffer in Obama’s administration and now his foundation’s vice president of civic engagement, said community groups can’t appoint themselves “gatekeepers” of the South Side. The Foundation’s outreach lasted more than a year, he told me, and involved thousands of Chicagoans. The Foundation also examined research on gentrification and displacement, he said, pledging, “We want people to be able to stay.”
“President Obama accepts his unique role as a community organizer who became president,” Strautmanis said. “At the same time, he’s not going to let anyone dictate to him how he runs this project”—certainly not the organizations that “want to be the sole representatives of people on the South Side.”
Promising to hold contractors to strict standards, the Foundation announced in January that the construction manager for the project would be Lakeside Alliance, a consortium that includes several black-owned firms. “Fifty-one percent of the financial equity of this contract is going to minority firms,” Strautmanis said. “That’s in writing.”
Profit alone is not the issue, said Cynthia Strathmann, the executive director of Strategic Actions for a Just Economy. In 2001, the Los Angeles-based organization negotiated a CBA, the first of its kind, for the construction of an entertainment district beside the Staples Center. “People should have a say in the way their communities are built and some sort of recourse to legal language that enforces that,” she said.
Since 2001, CBAs have been signed in many major cities, including New York, Atlanta, Detroit, Denver, and San Diego, on issues ranging from light rail to cancer research. Last year, a Chinese rail company, CRRC Sifang, accepted a CBA that requires it to base construction of Chicago’s new subway cars in the city.
“Why is it that China can come and agree to a CBA but not President Obama, the city of Chicago, or the University of Chicago?” said Perry, who leads marches for the CBA as the community organizing director for the Westside Health Authority.
Sonya Malunda, who helped oversee the Obama library bid as the University of Chicago’s senior associate vice president for civic engagement, said it’s unfair to place responsibility for “affordable housing, jobs, better schools, improved transit and crumbling infrastructure on the shoulders of one singular project.” It would be too difficult, she said, to define the composition of the community entitled to participate in the planning: “The community includes the adjacent neighbors, the South Side region, the city of Chicago.”
But Perry said the center’s planners would rather handpick the city residents it brings to the table than bow to grassroots mobilization. By contrast, according to Malone, developing the CBA was a “fully democratic, ground-up process” that began in the summer of 2016 with six forums throughout the city, each drawing at least one hundred people.
Across the many public meetings addressing the project, said Louise McCurry, president of the Jackson Park Advisory Council, “the great majority of people are very positive about the center. There are enormous possibilities.”
The project’s skeptics, though, do not reject the center wholesale. They say the debate is being framed by its exponents as, “You’re either with us or against us.”
“We in no way want to run the center off,” said Juanita Irizarry, executive director of Friends of the Park, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group. “But we also recall a young community organizer who came to Friends of the Park many years ago when he was organizing on the South Side seeking advice about how to expand green space. We find it quite ironic that this same organizer is now taking up park land for his center rather than building on a vacant lot.”
The CBA now awaits the signatures of Nesbitt for the Obama Foundation, Mayor Rahm Emanuel for the city, and President Robert Zimmer for the University of Chicago. Zimmer has said the commitment is up to the Foundation, while Emanuel, a chief of staff in the Obama White House, has pledged to “move heaven and earth” to erect the center in Chicago.
The coalition’s newest aim is to secure a city ordinance mandating a CBA, as has been done in Detroit. But the chances of that are slim in Chicago so long as the alderwoman who represents the Jackson Park neighborhood, Leslie Hairston, opposes the idea. “We want to move ahead with things that help benefit the community,” she told me, adding that some of the groups pushing for the CBA are outside the affected area.
Still, multiple levels of oversight, including a federal review spurred by proposed changes to park land, mean residents could have leverage, said a former city alderman, Dick Simpson, who teaches political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
The stakes are heightened by the Illinois gubernatorial race, among the most contentious of the year. The Democratic primary is Tuesday.
“The three leading Democrats are white; they all need the black vote to win,” Simpson said. When I asked the campaigns about the Obama center, the only candidate to back the CBA was Daniel Biss, a state senator and former mathematics professor at the University of Chicago. Neither J.B. Pritzker, a venture capitalist whose prominent Chicago family owns Hyatt Hotels and helped bankroll Obama’s political career, nor Chris Kennedy, former president of Chicago’s Merchandise Mart and a son of the late senator Robert F. Kennedy, would take a position.
Biss, who has positioned himself as the progressive alternative to affluent opponents with no governing experience, said in a statement, “The historical significance of this library, for this president, is precisely the reason we need to get this right and not simply follow old patterns of redevelopment.” He praised the Foundation’s outreach efforts, but said they must “end with a community benefits agreement” in line with Obama’s “legacy of organizing.”
When the question of the CBA arose at a campaign forum on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in a church in the West Loop, only Biss said he would oppose state funding for the center without a CBA, to loud applause. Pritzker equivocated—to boos—and Kennedy said no—a CBA would not dictate his decisions about the center.
The issue is quickly becoming a litmus test for some in the city’s black community, without whose support statewide Democratic candidates face tough electoral odds.
“If you don’t support the CBA, you’re not going to get my vote,” said Perry, the community organizer.
After his release from prison in May 2008, Perry went to work canvassing for Obama. He spent the autumn of 2012 in Iowa, and he was at Obama’s farewell address last year, when, he recalled, “the president told us to get a clipboard and fight for what’s right.”
“I will leave this life relishing the moments I stood with the president,” Perry said. “But I won’t let him put me on the wrong side of history on this one.”