Listen to the neighbors when building Obama Presidential Center

SHARE Listen to the neighbors when building Obama Presidential Center

Former President Barack Obama pointed out features of his proposed Obama Presidential Center, which is scheduled to be built in nearby Jackson Park. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

Barack Obama hosted an invitation-only gathering on the South Side a few days ago to talk up the plans for his new presidential library, but back in the day he might have stood outside with a picket sign.

One of the wonderful ironies of the Obama Presidential Center — and this really is a good thing — is that the only American president who was once a community organizer now is getting grief from other community organizers.


As a community organizer, Obama tried to pin down powerful people. That basically was the job. A community organizer, working with other folks, tries to pin down powerful people to get lead paint removed from an old building, or to bring a grocery store to a food-desert neighborhood, or to build affordable housing, or to fund a summer jobs program for kids. That sort of thing.

Now Obama is one of those powerful people, and others are trying to pin him down, and more power to them. The grassroots pressure inevitably will result in a better presidential center, one that better reflects the former president’s claimed values and makes the maximum effort to work with and energize the surrounding community.

Development of the Obama Presidential Center thus far has been a largely top-down process. There have been public hearings and community meetings, sure, but Barack and Michelle and their pals at the University of Chicago, City Hall and the Park District have largely called the shots about where to build the center, how it should be designed and what it should strive to do.

But a well-organized coalition of South Side community groups is demanding a much bigger voice in those decisions from here on out. They want a contractual guarantee — no sweet-talking promises — that the presidential center will, among other commitments, hire predominantly from the neighborhood, pay at least a “living wage,” set aside a majority of contracts for minority-owned businesses and create formal partnerships with the nearby schools.

This is not unheard of. Community benefit agreements have been cut around the country. Perhaps most notably, community groups negotiated a benefit agreement in Los Angeles in 2001 when investors wanted to create an entertainment district adjacent to the Staples Center basketball arena. The agreement called for 20 percent affordable housing, $1 million for park improvements and recreational facilities and a living wage for 70 percent of the jobs created by the development.

Reasonable people can disagree on the merits of the South Side coalition’s demands, which you can read in full at We certainly understand why the Obamas might be leery of a benefit agreement that could force the presidential center into court for even small matters and limit its flexibility. But it’s hard to argue against a more grassroots-friendly process.

The presidential center is to be built on precious park district land, which right there means the neighbors should have a strong say in the center’s development. And this is Barack Obama we’re talking about — self-styled champion of power for ordinary folks — not Richard Nixon or Herbert Hoover.

Even without pressure from the coalition, we expect the Obama Presidential Center will prove to be a committed neighbor. That’s where the former president’s heart is. He said Wednesday that he and Michelle view the center as a potentially “transformational project” for the whole South Side.

Obama said he envisions a presidential center that is a “training center” for “the next generation of leadership,” but also a vital community hub. He envisions play areas for children and athletic fields, a sledding hill and barbecue grills. Maybe even a public library.

“We don’t want to see some big building that’s dead, and kids are getting dragged to it for a field trip,” Obama said. “What we wanted was something that was alive, and that was a hub for the community and for the city and for the country.”

As a community organizer, Obama was not especially confrontational. His approach was to do his homework and make the strongest possible argument and pull people around to his point of view. More often than not, he believed, the voices of ordinary neighborhood people just weren’t being heard.

True then and true now.

Except it’s Obama’s turn to do the listening.

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