Politics & Policy

Obama’s Presidential Library Is Change Chicagoans Can’t Believe In

Former President Obama at a community event in Chicago in May. (Reuters photo: Kamil Krzaczynski)
In fact, it’s not even really a ‘library’ at all.

Something fascinating is happening in Chicago. When Barack Obama became president, the city was ebullient; he was, after all, a favorite son, and he’d promised to deliver the liberal policies beloved by Chicagoans. But now, nearly nine years later, city residents find themselves at odds with Obama over the plans for his presidential library.

In its initial bid for the right to host the library, put forth on behalf of the city, the University of Chicago offered large tracts of idyllic land in Washington Park and Jackson Park as two potential sites. Almost immediately, the people of those parks’ districts began scratching their heads. “Why not build it in one of the many blighted areas?” they asked. “Why are you taking a huge chunk of our parks?” Obama’s response was essentially an ultimatum: If the library couldn’t be built in a Chicago park, he’d take it to Honolulu or New York City.

After Obama selected Chicago and the Jackson Park site, protests began to grow. Residents of the park’s district, Woodlawn, took to local government and the op-ed pages of the city’s papers to express their fear that the project would rapidly gentrify the minority-majority area, force out longtime residents, and ruin the park’s role as a community gathering place.

In May of this year, protesters began a campaign to implore the Obama Foundation, the group overseeing the library’s construction, to sign a community benefit agreement (CBA), which would commit the Foundation to setting aside jobs for residents around the library, protecting low-income housing, supporting black-owned businesses, and strengthening neighborhood schools. The Foundation refused, and when a resident asked Obama himself to sign the agreement at a September public meeting about the library, Obama refused as well.

The issue many Chicagoans take with the library isn’t simply the absent CBA or the use of park land, but the way the Foundation has steamrolled them at every stage of the process. And it’s hard for them to ignore the irony underpinning the whole ordeal: Obama’s stated purpose for his library is to inspire visitors and locals “to make a positive change in their communities,” yet the project has already begun to alienate the very community it’s meant to change.

It seems Obama is once again taking executive power for granted: His library will neither contain his presidential documents, which have all been digitized, nor be administered by the National Archives and Records Administration — the two elements required of a presidential library. In fact, the Obama Foundation has named it the Obama Presidential “Center,” and the only books it might contain would come from the Chicago Public Library.

In other words, it’s not really a presidential library at all. It is, in Obama’s words, a “gift to the community” that will spread his message. The Foundation explains this on its website by pointing out that the center itself will be a living testament to the values of Obama’s presidency. It boasts that the center’s design takes into account the expressed views of “Chicagoans like you,” and that the Foundation will “continue to ask for and incorporate your feedback every step of the way.”

When it’s finished, the center will include a community garden, a “test kitchen,” and a recording studio where visitors will be able to “create their own songs, speeches, short films, and interviews,” according to the Foundation’s website. But neighborhood residents have said countless times that they don’t want any of that. They want their public park, their low-cost housing, and their culture. They want their elected officials to listen when they bang their fists on the table.

Instead, they’re getting change they can’t believe in.


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— Philip H. Devoe is a Collegiate Network Fellow with National Review.


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