Recently former-President Barack Obama got himself in a very awkward position. Pres. Obama is in the process of building his almost-requisite presidential library on the South Side of Chicago. At a February 27th community meeting, for his proposed library, he took a question about gentrification. His short answer was,
I know that I heard a couple people saying 'Well. We're concerned about maybe rents might go up.' Well here's the thing. 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 Los getting shot on that block. So what I want to do is make sure people have jobs, kids have opportunity, the school have a better tax base and if the rent goes up a little bit, people can pay it because they've got more money. If they're seniors, if they're seniors if they're on fixed incomes, if they're disabled, then we need to make sure there's a process in place to encourage and plan for affordable housing to be constructed.
But here's the thing I will say, I think a lot of times people get nervous about gentrification, and under stably so...It is not my experience...that the big problem on the South Side has been too much development, too much economic activity, too many people being displaced...
To see the full video, you can log on Twitter to check out the audience's reaction. The audience laughs with him as the former president makes his points. However, his longer answer--also on Twitter--as to why he does not want to sign on to a community benefits agreement got a more muted response.
Jeanette Taylor needs a more affordable place to live. Curtis Lawrence reports in his CityLab article, "Hope and Change Collide on the South Side," Seven years ago, Jeanette Taylor moved from the South Side Chicago neighborhood of Bronzeville.... Her Bronzeville unit was going to be rehabbed, the rent tripling... Now Taylor fears her family may be uprooted again. In 2021, the Obama Presidential Center, an estimate $500 million library campus...slated to open in nearby Jackson Park..."
Ms. Taylor expressed her concerns about the economic impact of the center, did others in the Woodlawn neighborhood near where Ms Taylor lives, to CityLab, The minute they announced the Obama Library was coming here, I was like, 'What am I going to do?
The concerns over the center, dedicated to the nation's first African American president, seems to be puzzling to people who do not live in Chicago. Mr. Lawrence writes, "After all, the city--and the South Side in particular--is very much Obama country." In 1985, Barack Obama arrived in Chicago to work as a community organizer. MIchelle Obama (née Robinson) was raised in the South Side. The proposed library is anticipated to bring a major shot of much needed investment to the community: "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." One economic estimate by The Foundation predicted the center would create nearly "5,000 jobs during construction and about 2,500 jobs after it opens, projecting a total economic impact of $3.1 billion through its first decade."
However as the project progress, anxiety over gentrification in the community that is already uneasy about an encroaching University of Chicago to the north has sparked debate among the residents and others over the positives of the center in Woodlawn. Curtis Lawrence asks, "Will it be the villain in another take 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 made history in May 2017, when the plans were first revealed. One of the architects is a woman, Billie Tsien of the firm Tod Williams Billie Tsien, and it would be the first presidential library to be located in an "urban, predominantly black neighborhood increasing the stakes both for the community and the former president." When completed, "The center will occupy the northwest section of the 543-acre park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and site of the 1893 Columbian Exposition." In addition to the library itself, which will be home to the digital archive of the president's non-classified records, the center will also house a museum, meeting spaces, restaurants, and a garden.
Former Pres. Obama and his advisers emphasize its importance as a much-needed engine for community renewal. Mr. Lawrence reports, "Woodlawn's population is now at about 24,150 according to the 2015 Census snapshot by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning." This is massive decline in the population from a high of 81,279 in 1960, the Encyclopedia of Chicago says. Recently, the neighborhood seems to be on the rebound, partly due to the proposed library. Mr. Lawrence reports, "The real estate website Redfin picked Woodlawn as the city's second-hottest neighborhood for 2017."
The debate over the center has uncovered "sometimes-conflicting hopes for a pocket of the city that is still shedding the residue of disinvestment, racism, and poverty."
For Jeanette Taylor, it is matter of making a stand against displacement. Ms. Taylor is an education organizer for the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization and one of the leaders in the task force arguing for a Community Benefits Agreement (citylab.com; Sept. 18, 2017; date accessed Mar. 6, 2018), a legal document that guarantees neighborhood participation in development projects. These types of agreements have been successful in communities from Los Angeles to New York City. One example: "In 2008, the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team built an arena in the Hill District [pghcitypaper.com; May 15, 2008; Mar. 6, 2018], a neighborhood that was once the city's black cultural center." In this case, the CBA for the arena outlined wage requirements and required developers to commit $8.3 million in neighborhood improvements, including a food market and youth center.
You would think that Obama Foundation would be on board with a CBA, right? Well, no, they are not. The former president has called CBAs a useful tool, in previous comments, but maintained that, as a non-profit, We are bringing money to the community. Recently, The Foundation announced that it is looking for a diversity consultant to enforce minority contracting and employment.
Jeanette Taylor looks askance at the important player in the OPC story, in particular, the University of Chicago, which will administer the programs with it. She asks,
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?
Former President Barack and First Lady Michelle Obama have a considerable history with the University of Chicago. They own a home in the upscale Kenwood, just north of the university where the former president taught constitutional law for nearly a decade before he was elected to the United States Senate in 2004. Mrs. Obama served as the university medical center's vice-president for community and external affairs until 2009, when she resigned shortly before The President's first inauguration.
The university has a mixed reputation among the South Side communities. In his book, Making the Second Ghetto, historian Arnold R. Hirsch chronicles the university's support of restrictive covenants, intended to restrict the number of African Americans living near it. Mr. Hirsch and his team of researchers uncovered earlier university attempts to keep development within the Hyde Park boundaries, "while economic life was sucked from adjacent Woodlawn."
Dominic Pacyga, an urban historian and retired professor from Columbia College, told CityLab,
There's been a long history of people from Woodlawn not trusting the University of Chicago,.... The university was the boogeyman.
University of Chicago spokesperson Marielle Sainvilus sent CityLab an email that "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." Further, the UChicago Local has partnered with local business owners with contracts at the university and its medical center; the unemployed and underemployed on the South Side with job opportunities.
Curtis Lawrence writes, "Despite such assurances, Woodlawn lawyer and activist Naomi Davis firmly believes that a CBA is essential for making sure those jobs go to local residents. Ms. Davis told CityLab,
If we don't have a system for recording what people promised, and holding them to account for it, then what if they don't do what they said they were going to do?
Ms. Davis moved to Woodlawn in 2010 with her organization, Black in Green, which is committed "to ensure that low-income residents on the South Side are fairly compensated in property takings, among other issues. She continues,
I was looking for a neighborhood like the one I grew up in...
Woodlawn is a modern day rarity: "African-American communities..."
...where you could walk to work, walk to shop, walk to learn, and walk to play had gone extinct in my lifetime.
When Ms. Davis is not working in one of the community gardens or hunched over maps, she attends Community Benefits Agreement meetings, where she is joined by an ever-expanding coalition of organizations including: the Chicago Teachers Union and Service Employees International Union Health Care Illinois/Indiana.
Janet Smith, the co-director and associate professor at the Natalie P. Voorhees Center for Neighborhood and Community Improvement at the University of Illinois, Chicago, said, "A specific jobs commitment and training for building and staffing jobs are crucial,...." Mr. Lawrence speculates, "A CBA also could include rent stabilization and property tax relief, so homeowners don't get hit with soaring bills as housing values rise." Ms. Smith, a CBA network consultant, told CityLab,
If it happens in such a way that my taxes go up or my rent goes up and I can't afford to stay, then that's wrong,...
Not every Woodlawn residents is on board with the CBA: "Longtime neighborhood power broker Rev. Byron Brazier,..., thinks it isn't necessary." Rev. Brazier told CityLab, Woodlawn was creating its own plan before the library got here....
The Rev. Brazier cites two specific community redevelopment intiatives--the Network of Woodlawn (thenetworkofwoodlawn.org; date accessed Mar. 12, 2018), a collaborative launched in 2012 and 1Woodlawn (1woodlawn.com; date access Mar. 12, 2018), established in 2015. Both programs are focused on safety, education, and health issues, can be an engine for neighborhood priorities in future developments.
The newest member in the already crowded field of community engagement groups is a still anonymous non-profit that was created with $250,000 seed money from the Chicago Community Trust, a local foundation that also funded 1Woodlawn. Former (real) U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Sherman Wright, managing partner of marketing communication and advertising firm Ten 35, are the co-chairs of this still unnamed 25-person organization, "which is designed to ensure the struggling communities surrounding the center benefit form new investments." However, some community activists perceive this as an attempt to placate or silence them.
Naomi Davis, also a member of the new committee, believe that this will not happen to her. Ms.Davis was chosen by the Obama Foudnation, the University of Chicago, the Obama Presidential Center, and stakeholders. She is definitely aware of the community champions who have been co-opted for other purposes--she vows never to stray from her commitment to the Community Benefits Agreement. She concludes, They understood what they were getting.