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Obama at Presidential Center ceremonial groundbreaking: ‘We can’t wait to see this place come to life’

Michelle Obama talked about her vision for the center at the groundbreaking — and how the city needs to even the score between the North and South Sides.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker, former President Barack Obama, former first lady Michelle Obama and Mayor Lori Lightfoot participate in the Obama Presidential Center ceremonial groundbreaking in Jackson Park on the South Side on Tuesday afternoon, Sept. 28, 2021.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker, former President Barack Obama, former first lady Michelle Obama and Mayor Lori Lightfoot participate in the Obama Presidential Center ceremonial groundbreaking in Jackson Park on the South Side on Tuesday afternoon, Sept. 28, 2021.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

I heard it a zillion times at Barack Obama campaign rallies, Stevie Wonder’s hit, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours.”

So it made a lot of sense, for those following the arc of the Obama story all these years, that it was the walk-off tune played after a bit of dirt was symbolically shoveled at the end of the ceremonial groundbreaking for the Obama Presidential Center on Tuesday. The song connects Obama’s past with Obama’s present.

“We can’t wait to see this place come to life,” said Obama at the ceremony, back home with former first lady Michelle on Monday and Tuesday. I’m told they spent Monday night at their Greenwood Avenue house in Kenwood; it’s been a long time since they’ve been there.

The Obama Center in historic Jackson Park is a big — but not the only — piece of the post-presidential life of Barack and Michelle Obama.

The Obama Center will serve as their base for carrying out their vision of training succeeding generations of global leaders. Obama is working on another book. Obama and Michelle are also Hollywood moguls. Their company, Higher Ground Productions, has a bunch of projects in the works in partnership with Netflix. They do politics and some causes but are very picky about giving up their time.

They also seem to be having some fun. The daughter of working class South Siders and the son of a white woman from Kansas and a Black father from Kenya live a lifestyle far removed from their days as a young couple in a Hyde Park condo. They have an oceanfront mansion in Martha’s Vineyard and a large home on an upscale block in D.C.

Building an Obama Center on the South Side has been in the works since 2014, when the University of Chicago led the drive for it to be located near their Hyde Park campus.

Though a formal competition was held, statements made by Obama since made it clear there were always two thumbs on the scale for his legacy project to be on the South Side — not New York, Hawaii, the West Side of Chicago or any other place in the city.

Being from the South Side is so central to the Obama story that it was always inconceivable their center would be anyplace else.

I think I have written this before, but in this context it bears repeating. Michelle Obama is a South Sider by birth. Michelle Obama grew up at 7436 S. Euclid Ave.

Obama is a South Sider by choice, coming to the South Side from New York to begin a career as a community organizer. After leaving for Harvard Law School, he returned to the South Side to launch his political career, and you know the rest of the story.

Michelle Obama talked about her vision for the center at the groundbreaking — and how the city needs to even the score between the North and South Sides.

“For us, the Obama Presidential Center means a lot more than just creating a space to house memories from our eight years in the White House,” she said, referring to the museum.

“This substantial investment in the South Side will help make the neighborhood where we call home a destination for the entire world. But more importantly, this project, as the governor and mayor have said, will be a vital resource for the people who live right here.

“The OPC will be a place where folks could find work; where kids can learn and grow and envision bigger lives for themselves; where families can walk and ride a bike, or have a reunion in the grass; where everyone can find calm and beauty and peace and safety.”

Michelle Obama recalled as a little girl, “We didn’t have a lot of places like that in our own backyard.

“I remember that whenever me, my mom, dad, my brother wanted to do something special — to see art, to hear music, take in a new museum exhibit, we had to get my dad’s Buick 225, take Jeffrey Boulevard to Lake Shore Drive and head north to downtown.

“...And even as a child I understood this disparity. I understood that whenever there was a huge investment of resources in the city — new park or infrastructure improvements, or any other beautification effort — It just rarely happened in our neighborhood.”

Jackson Park, while it did have the Museum of Science and Industry, “It just didn’t call to us.”

The location, in Jackson Park, designed by the famed landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, remains controversial because it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Though Washington Park was an alternative, in the end, the center is in Jackson Park because that’s where the Obamas wanted it to be. A federal court case is pending on appeal challenging locating the center in Jackson Park. It is a long shot.

The Obama Center. For now, it’s Signed, Sealed And Delivered in about four years.