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EDITORIAL: Nothing in writing, but a promise from Obama to South Side

A rendering of the proposed Obama Presidential Center, scheduled to be built in Jackson Park on the South Side. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

Affection, admiration and a hearty standing ovation for Barack Obama from South Side residents on Thursday contrasted with their impassioned pleas, soon after, for a big guaranteed cut of the money and jobs sure to come when the Obama Presidential Center is built in Jackson Park.

Obama, speaking via webcam at the meeting in Chicago, left no doubt that a binding contractual agreement won’t be coming. But he asked the disappointed South Siders to take him at his word that their community will reap significant benefits.

And, with that, the burden fell to Obama to remember where he came from.

These are the folks who gave him a home. They launched his career. To let them down now would be a grave injustice. Even in the absence of a formal community benefits agreement — even without giving his written word — Obama and his foundation have an immense responsibility to come through for their new South Side neighbors with jobs, affordable housing, financial help for the local schools and other community benefits.


Benefits agreements usually are drawn up when profit-driven investors redevelop neighborhoods, Obama said to explain why an agreement isn’t suitable here. “We are a nonprofit and aren’t making money. We’re just bringing money to the community,” he said.

Former President Barack Obama points out features of the proposed Obama Presidential Center in May. | Scott Olson/Getty Images
Former President Barack Obama points out features of the proposed Obama Presidential Center in May. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

Obama expressed a second concern with community benefits agreements. “It’s not inclusive enough,” he said. “I would then be siding with who? What particular organizations would end up speaking for everybody in that community? People will come out of the woodwork to be gatekeepers.”

Over and over, the president and his developers promised an open and inclusive process. They emphasized that the presidential center will be as welcoming to every South Sider as it is to foreign dignitaries. Five thousand construction jobs will be open mainly to residents of the South and West sides.

But not getting a benefits agreement is a letdown, to be sure, for longtime residents who fear being left on the sidelines. They worry about being displaced if property values swell. They want a guarantee on jobs because there have been too few in their community.

“The city is notorious for not keeping their word,” Sharon Payne of Woodlawn told reporters Thursday. “This is pushing in, and it’s going to push out working-class people.”

Meantime, the former president is saying I’m with you. Trust me.

Not until they see it will they believe it.

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