Mitchell: Community demands put Obama at odds with his roots

SHARE Mitchell: Community demands put Obama at odds with his roots

Former President Barack Obama points out features of the proposed Obama Presidential Center in May at the South Shore Cultural Center. | Getty Images

The Obama Presidential Center project is supposed to bring former President Barack Obama full circle.

After all, he started out as a community organizer helping the masses force the powers-that-be to do right by them.

His decision to bring his presidential library project to a much-maligned section of the city seemed to put him back in that role.

But things have changed — and not for the better — for a lot of black folks living around Jackson Park, where the presidential library will be built.

Here, public distrust looms large over everything from police officers to preachers.


When Obama came to the South Shore Cultural Center on Wednesday to unveil plans for his legacy project, he acknowledged that “the best things that happened in his life happened in this city,” recalling that the start of his life in public service started here.

“I owe it all to this city,” he said.

Although there was a formal bidding process to determine the site of the presidential library, there apparently was never any question in his mind where the library would end up.

“The fact of the matter was it had to be right here on the South Side of Chicago,” he said, prompting the audience to roar its approval.

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Obama shared his vision of a “living” institution that would transform a long-neglected section of the city.

His is no small plan.

Cornell Drive, a shortcut from Lake Shore Drive to Stony Island, would be closed, and traffic snarls would ratchet up.

Obama breezed past these concerns, pointing out the benefits that the presidential library would bring to the South Side.

“It is going to be a transformative project for this community, and an engine to improve and enhance communities,” he said.

To show that his vision wasn’t just about brick-and-mortar buildings that would take four years to build, Obama pledged to donate $2 million of his own money to the city’s summer jobs program to set the tone.

According to his calculations, an estimated 2,000 construction jobs and 200 to 300 permanent jobs would result from the presidential library project. Eighty percent of the construction hires would be from the area, Obama told his audience.

But while the former president can still pack an auditorium, it remains to be seen if a new generation of community activists will take him at his word.

A handful of protesters stood outside the South Shore Cultural Center as attendees rolled past holding up signs asking Obama to sign a Community Benefits Agreement.

The agreement would require that jobs be set aside for residents in communities around the presidential center; protect low-income housing and home owners; support black businesses, and strengthen neighborhood schools.

Such agreements have been negotiated in other large cities for development projects, but so far, the Obama Foundation has not agreed to do so.

“I know how this town works and how the world works. If it is not written, it didn’t happen and it’s not legally binding,” said Shannon Bennett, deputy director of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization.

“What we know is after everything is said, without public pressure, nothing gets done. He knows this is the right thing to do, especially the way business is done in Chicago,” Bennett said, referring to Chicago’s notorious reputation for corruption.

Yvette Moyo, a community activist and publisher of the South Shore Current, listened to Obama’s spiel, but was hopeful that a CBA would eventually be signed.

“It’s not about not believing the president’s promises. We’ve watched our community being devastated, and we didn’t have a pleasant eight years. Everything he said could be put in writing,” she said.

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