Photo by Grace Donnelly

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Seven years ago, Jeanette Taylor moved from the South Side Chicago neighborhood of Bronzeville three miles south to Woodlawn. Her Bronzeville unit was going to be rehabbed, the rent tripling. She needed a more affordable neighborhood.

Now Taylor fears her family may be uprooted again. In 2021, the Obama Presidential Center, an estimated $500 million library campus devoted to the 44th president, is slated to open in nearby Jackson Park, a stroll from Lake Michigan.

“The minute they announced the Obama Library was coming here, I was like, ‘What am I going to do?’” says Taylor, whose fears about the economic impact of the center are echoed by others in Woodlawn.

The angst over a library celebrating the nation’s first black president may seem puzzling to people who don’t live in Chicago. After all, the city—and the South Side, in particular—is very much Obama country. In 1985, a young Barack Obama arrived in the city as a community organizer. Michelle Obama grew up in a South Side neighborhood. The OPC is anticipated to bring a major jolt of investment to that part of the city: According to the Obama Foundation, the center will have a $339 million economic impact during construction, and $177 million annually from the three-building campus once it opens.

But as the project advances, fear of gentrification in a community that is already uneasy about an encroaching University of Chicago to the north has ignited a debate among residents and others about the benefits of the center to Woodlawn. Will it be the villain in another tale of dislocation and gentrification?  Or will it be a national model for how residents can play a significant part in developing a center that welcomes innovative businesses and improves the lives of its neighbors?

The OPC, whose plans were first revealed in May, is the first such presidential library to be sited in an urban, predominantly black neighborhood, increasing the stakes both for the community and the former president. The center will occupy the northwest section of the 543-acre park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and site of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Besides the library itself, which will house a digital archive of Obama’s non-classified records, the center will include a museum, meeting spaces, restaurants and a garden.

Obama and his advisers stress its importance as a much-needed catalyst for community renewal. Woodlawn’s population is now at about 24,150, according to a 2015 Census snapshot by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. While that’s a daunting drop (in 1960 the area held 81,279 residents, according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago), there have been recent signs that the community is rebounding, no doubt in part due to the upcoming library. The real estate website Redfin picked Woodlawn as the city’s second-hottest neighborhood for 2017.

The debate over the center has revealed sometimes-conflicting hopes for a pocket of the city that is still shedding the residue of disinvestment, racism and poverty.

For Taylor, education organizer for the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, it’s important to take a stand against displacement of black residents. For activists like Naomi Davis, it could be the last chance to build a walkable village for African-Americans, reminiscent of the Queens, New York neighborhood where she was raised. For academics like Janet Smith, it’s vital to make the center accountable through a community benefits agreement. And for longtime neighborhood power brokers such as the Rev. Byron Brazier of Apostolic Church of God and the Rev. Leon Finney Jr., founder of the Woodlawn Community Development Corp., it’s an opportunity to provide wisdom gleaned from years of efforts  to revitalize their neighborhood.

Uneasy neighbors: Woodlawn and the University of Chicago

Photo by Marc Monaghan

Obama Library South Side CBA Coalition members camp out on the sidewalk outside Hyatt Regency McCormick Place on Sept. 13, 2017. The Obama Foundation was having a public meeting there the following day.

Taylor is part of a task force pushing for a community benefits agreement (CBA), a legal document that guarantees neighborhood involvement in development projects. Such agreements have worked successfully in urban neighborhoods from Los Angeles to New York City. One recent example: In 2008, the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team built an arena in the Hill District, a neighborhood that was once the city’s black cultural center. The CBA for the project defined wage requirements and required developers to commit to $8.3 million in neighborhood improvements, including a grocery store and youth center.

But the Obama Foundation is opposed to a CBA. In previous public comments, the former president said that a community benefits agreement can be a “useful tool” when for-profit developers are involved, but maintained that, as a nonprofit, “We are bringing money to the community.” Instead, his foundation recently announced a search for a “diversity consultant” to enforce minority contracting and hiring.

Taylor casts a jaundiced eye at the prominent players in the presidential center saga, particularly the University of Chicago, which will run programs with it. “How many times have we been played about everything that comes to this community that’s supposed to be for us, that’s not supposed to push us out?” says Taylor, who attend Mollison Elementary School in Bronzeville.

Photo by Max Herman

Woodlawn resident and Kenwood Oakland Community Organization organizer Jeanette Taylor fears that the Obama Presidential Center will stir gentrification in her neighborhood.

The Obamas have considerable history with the University of Chicago. They own a home in Kenwood, a neighborhood of elegant mansions and low-rise apartment buildings just north of the university where Obama taught constitutional law for almost a decade before he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004. Michelle Obama joined the university’s medical center staff in 2002. She was vice-president for community and external affairs when she resigned in 2009, shortly before her husband’s inauguration.

But the university’s reputation among South Side communities is decidedly mixed. In “Making the Second Ghetto,” historian Arnold R. Hirsch documents the university’s support of restrictive covenants, designed to limit the number of blacks living near it. Hirsch and other researchers unearthed previous university efforts to keep development inside its Hyde Park boundaries, while economic life was sucked from adjacent Woodlawn.

“There’s been a long history of people from Woodlawn not trusting the University of Chicago,” says Dominic Pacyga, urban historian and retired professor from Columbia College Chicago. “The university was the boogeyman.”

In an email, University of Chicago spokeswoman Marielle Sainvilus didn’t directly address the university’s history with Woodlawn or its position on a CBA, but touted the university’s support for affordable housing and economic development through its Office of Civic Engagement and work with groups such as the nonprofit developer Preservation of Affordable Housing. The UChicago Local initiative also works to match area business owners with contracts at the university and its medical center and unemployed and underemployed South Side residents with jobs.

The university was also criticized by neighbors to the north. In 2003, Bronzeville residents accused the university of “stealing” the famed Checkerboard Lounge, once owned by blues legend Buddy Guy and frequented by the likes of Junior Wells and Muddy Waters. At the time, university officials said they were trying to preserve blues on the South Side by offering the club space in Hyde Park. The club closed permanently in 2015. While the university’s intentions can be debated, some saw this incident as another example of its heavy hand in attempting to control the culture and future of the area.

The other finalist for the Obama Center, Washington Park, sits on the western edge of the university’s campus. City planners looked at it as part of its bid for the 2016 Olympics, ultimately awarded to Brazil.

“If I was Obama, I would have picked Washington Park,” said Pacyga, who lives on the South Side. “You have the El there and you’re closer to the Dan Ryan [Expressway]. He speculated that the university’s input may have pulled the project to Jackson Park. “It might have been a more ideal spot because it’s under their control.”

Getting promises in writing 

Photo by José Alejandro Córcoles

Activist Naomi Davis stands in Jackson Park, the future site of the Obama Presidential Center, which she sees as a chance to develop the neighborhood into a walkable village.

In 2010, lawyer and community organizer Naomi Davis moved to Woodlawn with her organization, Blacks in Green, or BIG. It gained influence and publicity by ensuring Englewood residents were fairly compensated when Norfolk Southern Railway expanded it rail yard station; helping to develop green landscaping for Chicago Housing Authority properties and creating a map of West Woodlawn properties that were vacant, for sale or targeted for demolition.

“I was looking for a neighborhood like the one I grew up in,” she said, describing her motivation to start BIG. She loves the idea of villages within a city and realized that African-American communities “where you could walk to work, walk to shop, walk to learn, walk to play, had gone extinct in my lifetime.”

She is focused on preserving and re-energizing Woodlawn, determined that it not go the way of other Great Migration legacy communities such as Harlem that experienced major gentrification.

During the summer, when Davis was not in one of the many community gardens in her neighborhood, she could be found at meetings for a community benefits agreement. The Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, Southside Together Organizing for Power, Bronzeville Regional Collective, Prayer and Action Collective and the Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, also support a CBA. Recently, two large union locals joined the coalition, the Chicago Teachers Union and Service Employees International Union Health Care Illinois/Indiana.

For Davis, the logic behind a CBA is simple: “If we don’t have a system for recording what people promised, holding them to account for it, then what if they don’t do what they said they were going to do?”

A firm, specific jobs commitment is crucial, according to Janet Smith, co-director and associate professor at the Voorhees Center for Neighborhood and Community Improvement at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“You put in writing a percentage, so that it’s fair to everyone,” Smith elaborated. “You not only get people employed, but you think even further back.”

“What are they doing now to make sure that people in the community can even get employed?” she asks, adding that job training should be preparing workers for positions building and staffing the center.

An economic assessment by the Obama Foundation predicted the presidential center will generate close to 5,000 jobs during construction and about 2,500 jobs after the center opens. The assessment projects an economic impact of $3.1 billion from construction through the center’s first decade.

Smith, a consultant to the CBA network, said residents are smart to be leary of the University of Chicago and the city as watchdogs for neighborhood priorities. In addition to employment and education, she advocates exploring other economic mechanisms in a CBA, including rent stabilization and property tax relief so longtime homeowners don’t get hit with soaring bills as housing values rise.

A project as large as this one raises moral as well as economic questions, she said.

“If it happens in such a way that my taxes go up or my rent goes up and I can’t afford to stay,” Smith said, “then that’s wrong.”

Two views on community benefits agreements

Photo by Max Herman

Longtime Woodlawn resident William Hill is concerned that the effects of the Obama Presidential Center but isn’t sure that a community benefits agreement is the solution.

Artist William Hill lives in the house where he grew up with his parents and grandparents, down the street from Brazier’s Apostolic Church. He is not so sure a CBA is a good idea, even though he shares  advocates concerns about gentrification and displacement. He said some CBA proponents have brought a bitter and divisive tone to his community.

Hill is active in 1Woodlawn, an outgrowth of organizing work at Apostolic Church, which Brazier took over the 18,000-member church from his legendary father, Bishop Arthur M. Brazier, in 2008.

“Woodlawn was creating its own plan before the [Obama] library got here,” Brazier said.

He is quick to note that the church’s efforts in the area have deeper roots than those of some CBA advocates. But the congregation is also geographically dispersed now.

Brazier cites two initiatives to redevelop the community—the Network of Woodlawn, a community development collaborative that started in 2012, and 1Woodlawn, launched in 2015. Both focus on safety, education, and health issues, and both could be used to push for neighborhood priorities in future development.

He advocates using neighborhood power to negotiate with developers, including the University of Chicago. The community’s clout could be used to push for property tax and rent relief, similar to the objectives of CBA proponents, he added.

“The Obama Library is not a developer,” he said. “They’re not going to build one commercial strip. They’re not going to rehab or change one building. They’re not going to do anything (outside the library’s boundaries).”

So while a CBA is being planned and negotiated, he said, “the [alderman] is meeting with real developers.”

Davis contends that the stakes for Woodlawn and other communities in the Obama Presidential Center district are so high that nothing less than a CBA should be accepted. “We know that we want family-supporting wages, that we want these vendor contracts, that we want parity in public investment dollars, that we want ownership of the land,” she said.

The most recent entry into this crowded field of community engagement players is a still-unnamed nonprofit that started last spring with $250,000 from the Chicago Community Trust, a local foundation that also helped fund 1Woodlawn. Former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a basketball pal of Obama, and Sherman Wright, managing partner of marketing communication and advertising firm Ten 35, are co-chairs of this 25-person entity, which is designed to ensure the struggling communities surrounding the center benefit from new investments. Some neighborhood activists, however, see it as an attempt to placate them, or even silence their voices.

Davis is also a member of this new committee, chosen by the Obama Foundation, the University of Chicago, the Obama Presidential Center and other stakeholders. She says she’s well aware of community champions who have been co-opted elsewhere—and she vows that she will not waver from her commitment to a CBA.

“They understood what they were getting.”

  • This is a very disappointing piece of one-sided reporting. The reporter found two johnny-come-latelies to my neighborhood (7 years only? Taylor and Davis have been here less than half the time my family has) who complain about the best possibility for putting Woodlawn on the map? Apparently they don’t hang out much on the corner of 62nd and Kenwood, where my kids grew up playing in the playground and dodging the drug dealers and gang members who would shoot at each other with regularity (and yes, kids died there). I am sick of being told by such recent arrivals that I and my family, who have worked hard to make this area livable, are “gentrifiers” by people who moved here after me. Also, look around: there is no lack of land for development, and no lack of very reasonable rental apartments, including section 8 housing. What are they talking about? Only a fool would think that Woodlawn is ever going to have a Hyde Park/Kenwood kind of population density. (Look up the stats, by the way: Woodlawn lost over 50% of its population in the past two decades, only recently started growing.) Also, it is just plain offensive to claim that this area should be some kind of re-creation of some imaginarily idyllic “post-Great Migration” paradise. What bunk. There’s a word for claiming that a certain area should be populated only be people of one race or for nostalgia for an era where an area was uniformly one race: racism. Sorry, Davis, but your misplaced nostalgia is just as violent towards my two kids, who were born and grew up in this neighborhood–it is *their* only home and neighborhood–as any of the horrifying real estate convenants were. Are you suggesting we bring back such convenants, but turn them against Asians, whites, Latinos, and other non-African-American buyers and renters? (Maybe also exclude immigrants and students, too?) Because that’s precisely what it sounds like to me, who is not African-American. This neighborhood welcomed me and my family when we first moved in more than fifteen years ago. I am happy that my neighbors weren’t bigots like Davis sounds like. I recently spent a few hours at the amazing new middle and high school that the University of Chicago built on 63rd and University Ave. Maybe Davis should, too, and see the incredible commitment and leadership that UChicago employees like Tanika Island and Jerrold Washington bring to the task. I’d recommend the reporter, Curtis Lawrence, call them up and do a piece on what they’re spending their whole lives on: improving educational opportunities for local kids, supported 100% by the University.

    Pacyga is utterly ignorant when he says “[The Jackson Park site] might have been a more ideal spot because it’s under their [=the University’s] control.” Jackson Park is in no way under University control. The University doesn’t even own any land south of 61st St. (in an agreement apparently reached back in the 60s between TWO and the University, though I’ve never seen it in writing: maybe it’s just an urban legend–it certainly explains better than Hirsch’s vague claims the fact that the University never expanded south–not because it made “efforts to keep development” out of Woodlawn, but because Brazier’s TWO had asked them not to develop down here).

    Bravo to William Hill–the one reasonable voice in this article. I’m proud to count him among my neighbors. And I would still welcome Davis and Taylor to my neighborhood if they don’t try to elide my right to live here and to raise my children here, just as I won’t theirs.