An artist's rendering of the proposed Obama Presidential Center campus in Jackson Park Credit: Kate Berner

Two clear messages emerged from a blizzard of opinions expressed Wednesday evening at the most highly charged meeting yet about the Obama Presidential Center:

First, as panelist Naomi Davis, founder of community economic development group Blacks in Green, put it and virtually every subsequent speaker reiterated: “We love our African-American president unconditionally.”

And then, from more than one member of the audience: If you’re from the east coast, don’t bother coming here to tell south-siders what they ought to do with their parks.

The occasion was a symposium about the OPC’s impact on the south side organized by University of Chicago professor W.J.T. Mitchell and held at, though not sponsored by, the university. Mitchell noted that the Obama Foundation, the university, the city, and the Park District had all declined to participate.

An actual blizzard in New York kept architect and panelist Michael Sorkin from making the trip (his remarks were read by Mitchell). But Charles Birnbaum, president of the D.C.-based Cultural Landscape Foundation was there, arguing against putting the Obama Center in Jackson Park, invoking Janet Jackson.

Birnbaum, who claimed to have a “romance” with Chicago, which is “the home of some of my closest friends and favorite places,” said that Jackson Park and Washington Park (an alternative site for the center in the University of Chicago’s winning bid for the project) are “nationally significant and historic parkland,” and that “the University of Chicago, Mayor Emanuel, the Chicago Park Board, the Obama Foundation, and others have set a bad, and, frankly, dangerous precedent by taking parkland held in public trust for the center.”

“[L]et’s keep the OPC on the south side and let’s keep valuable parkland too,” Birnbaum said. He added that vacant, city-owned land across the street from Washington Park would make a better site. When he later responded to audience comments by saying that “a lot of people who have spoken from the audience are acting like we have no other choice [than Jackson Park],” and that the Olmsted-designed parks are works of art and sacred land that ought to be left alone, DuSable Museum president and Obama Foundation Inclusion Council member Perri Irmer responded with a stinging dressing down launched with a word that summoned the authority of the former president:

“Mr. Birnbaum, you have a great level of audacity. Our communities are what is sacred. Our families are sacred. Parks are not sacred. . . . What happens to [Obama’s] legacy if we run this project out of the south side like Friends of the Parks ran the Lucas Museum out? We’re talking about communities that have suffered economic divestment, that have suffered job loss, that have suffered being ignored for generations. I know because I’ve been here; my parents and grandparents have been here. My children and grandchildren are here, and we’re not leaving.

“Folks who want to come here to tell us what we ought to do for our community,” she continued, “go back. It’s disingenuous. You don’t know us. You’re not a medium who can channel a park designer from 150 years ago.”

Another view of the proposed center
Another view of the proposed centerCredit: Kate Berner

Arguments voiced in the meeting, which ran over its two-hour time slot, covered the full spectrum of opinions, though there may have been something close to consensus on Birnbaum’s point that a site near Washington Park would have been preferable. The legendary 99-year-old historian and activist Timuel Black supported this; so did Juanita Irizarry and Ward Miller, the executive directors of Friends of the Parks and Preservation Chicago, respectively. But it was a point that almost everyone has already given up on.

Many in the audience were now more focused on fighting for something Obama has repeatedly said he won’t grant: a Community Benefits Agreement, a legally binding document that would spell out economic opportunities and other guarantees for neighborhood residents. Panelist Jawanza Malone, executive director of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization, argued for a CBA, noting that last year Woodlawn had the third-highest increase in property values in the entire country while the average household income there is just $25,000, and most of the population are renters.

Malone wants a CBA in order to keep the Obama Center from becoming “a Trojan horse that’ll drive gentrification and displacement in this part of town.” Moderator Barbara Ransby, who is also a University of Illinois at Chicago professor and a neighborhood resident, concurred, suggesting that—like a prenuptial agreement—a CBA doesn’t mean there’s no love.

And a few objected to the event itself: University of Chicago faculty member Liz Moyer said she was uncomfortable speaking. The point of the center is to benefit children on the south side, Moyer argued. “It’s not to benefit a bunch of rich white Hyde Parkers; it’s not to benefit faculty at the university. . . . We really aren’t the people who should be involved here.”

But Mitchell, coauthor of a recent letter signed by 200 U. of C. faculty questioning decisions related to the OPC, repeated in a brief closing remark that he’d organized the event because the tightly managed previous meetings he’d attended, mostly hosted by the Obama Foundation or the city, had lacked the “passionate disagreement” so eloquently in evidence here.

“Not everybody agrees,” Mitchell said, “but that’s what democracy stands for.”  v