A teenage girl hops on the CTA Green Line on a Saturday morning and rides two stops, from the Ashland station to the Garfield station.
But in that five-minute L ride, her world is transformed. She gets on the train in Englewood, a neighborhood beset by violence. She gets off at the Barack Obama Presidential Library, where she is inspired.
That is the Obama library we envision, and why we have been staunch advocates of bringing it to Chicago, even at a loss of a 22 acres of parkland. We envision a library that is a catalyst for economic development on Chicago’s South Side, sure, but one that more importantly transforms lives.
Ask anybody who has succeeded in life to whom or what they give credit, and they will tell you about a great teacher, perhaps, or a visit to a museum or an adored relative who showed the way.
A dancer remembers the first dance concert he saw. An artist remembers her first visit to a gallery. The Chicago-born writer David Mamet once told us that his awakening to literature came by way of browsing the book stacks at the downtown Chicago Public Library.
The news of the last two days is that the Obama library will be built in Chicago, not in New York or Hawaii, and it will be built in Jackson or Washington Park on the South Side, as proposed by the University of Chicago. A protracted process during which it seemed that Chicago, absurdly, might lose this thing is almost over.
Now the real work begins — let’s get this library built right.
We strongly favor a location on the west edge of Washington Park, rather than Jackson Park. It could bring substantial economic development to an area that sorely needs it. It would be a short stroll from the University of Chicago, creating opportunities for academic synergies. And it would be right across the street from that Green Line stop.
We also feel strongly that as few acres as possible — well under half of the 22 acres — should be used for buildings. The bulk of the land should be left in a park-like state, easily accessible to people of the neighborhood. Being city folks, we had to go out there to Washington Park one day last winter to see what 22 acres actually looks like — that’s a lot of land.
And we can’t stress enough that private funds, not public money, should build this library. The same powerful operators who got the Park District to cough up the parkland and rammed a law through Springfield to make it tougher for anybody to sue should be pretty skilled at hitting up their wealthy pals for donations.
But, above all, let’s make this a library for Chicagoans — every Chicagoan — and not just for tourists and scholars. Open those doors wide. Make the library fascinating. Make it fun. Inspire.
In another 15 or 20 years, we imagine a brilliant community organizer or lawyer or president, when asked to what they owe their success, saying, “I remember the day I visited the Obama Presidential Library.”