The soul of Jackson Park is at stake with the Obama Presidential Center.
Barack and Michelle Obama are very clear about their vision. This won’t be a traditional library teeming with archived papers. It’s a campus with a museum, library building, athletic center and forum. The latter is public meeting space for programming and training in community activism.
The former first lady, who grew up with the park in the South Shore community, lamented she didn’t have nearby amenities like sledding. And so the campus will offer a sledding hill and play areas for children. She also pointed out the lack of public art she saw as a child. “You think about how little public art there is on the South Side, which is one of the things we hope to do with the Obama Presidential Center,” she said last fall.
On the former president’s part, his vision is closing roads to link his center with the Museum of Science and Industry as one campus with bike trails, access to food trucks and lagoon paddle boats. The Obamas want the center to bring economic transformation to surrounding disinvested neighborhoods. Both use Millennium Park as a measuring stick of what Jackson Park could possibly evolve into. Their urban vision speaks directly to what they think the South Side lacks.
Public feedback demonstrates that South Siders are quite fond and protective of Jackson Park, one of the city’s largest public parks. A small, yet mighty group of organized white park users don’t like the Millennium Park playground comparison (deridingly dubbed Disneyland.) Last week they got the Obama Foundation, which is behind construction of the presidential center, to move the proposed parking garage and weave in more serenity into the campus plans. That’s still not good enough for those who want to protect the legacy of park designer Frederick Law Olmsted. Their focus is nature and bird watching, not a tribute to Obama.
While those elements are important and certainly a part of Jackson Park, there are many more uses for black Chicago. Family reunions and class picnics are part of the summertime fabric with their barbecue grills and sound systems. Already, the Chosen Few Picnic & Festival, “the Woodstock of house music,” has released its July lineup and ticket sales. Last summer singers, dancers and poets paid tribute to the late musician Phil Cohran at 63rd Street Beach, an homage to the weekly concerts he performed in the 1960s.
At 543 acres, Jackson Park also features a Japanese-style garden, art installation by Yoko Ono, a golf course, three harbors and plenty of athletic space. An overall concern is that access not be curbed by the Obama center.
Don’t turn precious park space into a cumbersome permit process or create artificial borders that project unwelcomeness. And not without coincidence, the Chicago Park District is updating its master plan of the park this year. The visioning boards show myriad public priorities — expanding leisure activities, preservation, establishing a healthy ecosystem and reconnecting with water. And there’s a proposal for a PGA-style golf course, which is also subject to more public input.
Jackson Park has long a long history ever since it hosted the World’s Fair in 1893 with the Columbian Exposition. The fair introduced many firsts to the world, such as Juicy Fruit Gum and the dishwasher. And, now the first black president is poised to leave his mark in Jackson Park. It’s not lost on many that the park is named after another president, Andrew Jackson, a slave owner.
Because the Obama center will be on the lakefront, a series of approvals and a zoning change are necessary before scheduled groundbreaking this year. Not to mention the ongoing activism of those who want a formal community benefits agreement that outlines how black neighborhoods will benefit.
The city and Obama Foundation have a huge task in front of them — ensuring Jackson Park remains a green space that has a little bit of everything for everybody.
Sun-Times columnist Natalie Y. Moore is a reporter for WBEZ and author of “The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation.”
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