In its heyday, Washington Park was a prime meeting place for family gatherings and reunions.
It brought out hundreds after the Bud Billiken Parade, where families would continue their parties in the spacious park after the parade.
But things have changed, says Washington Park native Michelle Shelton, 57, who now lives in the South Shore neighborhood. On Tuesday afternoon, just hours after the Obama Foundation announced it had chosen Chicago for Obama’s library, the 366 acre park was pretty empty on a windy spring day.
Like many Chicagoans, Shelton is happy to see the Obama Presidential Library take space in a town near and dear to the president. But Shelton is on team Washington Park, where she thinks the space is much more adequate than Jackson Park.
“This is a huge park and it’s not as active as it used to be. It’s bigger than Jackson Park. It’s easy to get to on the bus,” Shelton said. “I hope it’s at Washington Park myself because it’s such a big space, and they’ve got enough room to do that and still have the park.”
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Francine Sneed, of New City, sat near Washington Park on Tuesday waiting for her mother to get out of a doctor’s appointment at the University of Chicago across the street.
To her, the library means jobs and economic opportunities for the South Side.
“I really don’t think it will make a big difference (where it is) as long as there are job opportunities for the people,” Sneed, 69, said. “It’s jobs for the city. I don’t think it will hurt Washington Park. It will take up some space but I’d rather see it here, then somewhere else people can’t appreciate it.”
In Jackson Park, some three miles away, Derrick Colton hit golf balls at the park’s driving range Tuesday afternoon.
Colton, 46, of South Shore, comes out to the park regularly for family gatherings and reunions, and to let out some stress at the golf range.
“Traditionally Jackson Park has a lot of activities. It’s right by the lake and in the summer time it’s used a lot. So if it was up to me, I’d want to use an area that doesn’t have a lot of activity. And right now, that’s Washington Park,” Colton said.
The announcement got a thumbs-up from some early-morning commuters.
“I think it’s great. I think it’s good for the city. And to show the respect for Obama,” Tommie Hamilton, 61, said at the Garfield stop at 79th Street on the CTA Red Line.
“It will bring a lot of jobs here,” Hamilton. After all, he added with a shrug, “they gotta build it.”
Danielle Hayden, who was at the Red Line station with her 8-year-old son, Lorenzo, approved of the library coming to the South Side.
“I think it will be a good idea, because Obama is a good person – educational, and righteous,” Hayden said.
As for the choice of Chicago, given his local roots, “it’s only right,” she said, “but anywhere, it will be right. He’s the president of the United States.”
The choice between Washington and Jackson Parks won’t be made for at least six months. But the local aldermen are already in campaign mode as if the decision will be made next week.
“If it’s in Washington Park, you then connect Hyde Park and Washington Park together and you end the park being a barrier that separates these two neighborhoods. The opportunity for economic development, job creation is much higher in Washington Park than it is in Jackson Park,” said Ald. Will Burns (4th), whose ward includes Washington Park.
“Woodlawn has been moving along. You’ve got Hyde Park. You’ve got parts of South Shore, like the Highlands, that are doing extremely well. The question is, how do you create the delta that the Obama Foundation is looking for? You do that in Washington Park.”
Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) noted Washington Park is more accessible. It’s close to the CTA Green Line, the Dan Ryan Expressway, Lake Shore Drive and “all of the major corridors” leading to the South Side, including Michigan and Indiana avenues and State Street.
“It would be the location where you could have the greatest offsite spinoff benefits surrounding the library. There’s tons of vacant land west of the proposed site, south of the proposed site, north of the proposed site that could be developed. . . . Washington Park needs it more,” Dowell said.
Still to be negotiated is an ironclad community benefits agreement similar to the one tied to Chicago’s failed 2016 Olympic bid.
Some area residents want it to include a long-sought trauma center, preferably at the University of Chicago Hospital. Protesters stood outside the Gary Comer Youth Center, where the announcement was held, holding a banner that read “Obama cares. U of C doesn’t. No trauma center. No library.”
Burns is more concerned about economic development and creating jobs.
“When you put $500 million in investments on the South Side of Chicago, it sends a clear signal to the market that this is a community worth investing in. It brings the attention of real estate developers, folks who want to build mixed-use. It could be a real game-changer for the Washington Park community,” Burns said.
“I sponsored a bill when I was in the Legislature to put a tax on bullets to fund a trauma center. We couldn’t get it out of committee because of the National Rifle Association. Trauma center people would do well to find a sustainable revenue source to fund a trauma center. People who use trauma centers require a lot of services and they don’t have the insurance to pay for it. It’s very, very expensive.”