Public hearings reflect deep support for Obama Presidential Library on South Side

Jeremy Manier
Executive Director of News and Public AffairsUniversity Communications

Two spirited Chicago Park District hearings to discuss proposed sites for the Barack Obama Presidential Library drew more than 2,200 people this week, with dozens of library supporters testifying before cheering audiences.

Public comments at the Jan. 13-14 events reflected overwhelming support among residents, elected officials and community groups for bringing the presidential library to the South Side. Speaking to a packed auditorium at Hyde Park Academy School on Tuesday night, Derek Douglas, vice president for civic engagement at the University of Chicago, said the University’s proposed sites for the library, which include parcels of land in Washington Park and Jackson Park, offer unprecedented opportunities for the South Side and the historic parks.

“This will be the first truly urban presidential library, which means it will have a greater impact on economic growth, culture and education than any presidential library before it,” Douglas said. “It will touch many more people, especially local residents.”

That message connected with many supporters in the crowd, including the Rev. Leon Finney, whose fiery testimony drew some audience members to their feet. “It’s time to vote ‘yes’ to the building of the Obama library on the South Side of the city of Chicago,” an impassioned Finney told the audience on Tuesday.

Douglas said the proposal has benefitted from the input of community partners, who want to ensure the library would not displace current residents of the Washington Park or Woodlawn communities. He recounted Chicago’s history of placing major museums in parks, and noted that parkland would allow for open space comparable to other presidential library campuses. The proposal calls for either 21 acres in Jackson Park, or 22 acres in Washington Park, with another 11 acres of University and city land near the Washington Park site. Presidential library buildings most likely would account for just three acres of the total project.

Phil Enquist of the architecture and planning firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, said the proposed sites would benefit the parks by bringing new visitors and driving new investment.

“The Presidential Center campus will be a small fraction of the larger parkland, but its presence will spark programming that will help to activate the entire park for the community’s use and enjoyment. In this way the library will partner with the parks and become a gateway,” Enquist explained.

At Wednesday’s similarly packed hearing at the Washington Park Fieldhouse, Washington Park native Ghian Foreman described learning archery in the park and going fishing in the park’s lagoon. “I don’t take using park space lightly,” he said, but the presidential library offers a chance to invest in the park and bring new life and more visitors to the area.

A personal connection with history

Many supporters at the Tuesday event praised the economic benefits of bringing the presidential library to the South Side. Wallace Goode of the Hyde Park Chamber of Commerce cited its potential to spur “much-needed economic growth,” while Bernita Johnson-Gabriel of the Quad Communities Development Corporation said the library would be “a catalyst like no other.”

Alderman Will Burns (4th Ward) looked back on the excitement of President Obama’s inauguration. “It is just as exciting to talk about bringing this home today,” he said, adding that he wanted to “welcome the economic development, jobs and opportunities that improve education and safety” associated with the library.

Ninety-six-year-old civil rights activist Timuel Black also cited the inspirational power of bringing the library to the South Side: “It can prove to all people that, as Sam Cooke sang so eloquently, ‘A change is gonna come.’”

Although some supporters of a library on the South Side expressed opposition to building on parkland, others said that including parkland would be a boon to the park system. One 12-year-old resident testified that she thought “the library would make the park better” for young people.

Woodlawn native and Cook Country Forest Preserve superintendent Arnold Randall reflected that Chicago has 11 museums in parks, including many of the city’s world-renowned institutions, such as the National Museum of Mexican Art in Harrison Park, the Art Institute of Chicago in Grant Park, the Museum of Science and Industry in Jackson Park, the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Lincoln Park and the DuSable Museum of African American History in Washington Park. Randall noted that there should be a “high bar” for building in the parks, and concluded that the library telling the history behind the first African American president easily meets that bar.

The Rev. Richard L. Tolliver, pastor of St. Edmund’s Episcopal Church in the Washington Park neighborhood, said he wanted to build upon his congregants’ deep pride in their community and history.

“We want to carry on the same tradition by bringing the presidential library here,” Tolliver said.

More information about the collaborative bid to bring the Obama Presidential Library to the South Side is available at oplsouthside.org.

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