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Mitchell: Obama Presidential Center could lift entire South Side

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, center, speaks about the future of the Obama Presidential Center

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, center, and others talk about the future of the Obama Presidential Center. | Joshua Lott/Getty Images

I left the South Side of Chicago in 1984 for the same reasons many black families are moving to the suburbs today.

I wanted my children to go to a good school. I wanted a larger backyard. I wanted to feel safe in that backyard.

Four years ago, I did what most empty nesters have done.

I moved back into the city, on the South Side, in a neighborhood that was a mecca for the black middle class three decades ago.

Then, you could spend all day shopping along East 71st Street, go clubbing on 75th Street and enjoy a date-night steak at the Alexander’s Steakhouse on 79th Street.

Those places are all gone.

It is no longer unusual to hear sirens wailing or see yellow police tape roping off a crime scene.

OPINION

South Shore was mentioned only a couple of times during the news conference to discuss the selection of Jackson Park as the site for the Obama Presidential Center.

But this struggling neighborhood is at the crossroads and is an example of what’s at stake as the Obama Foundation and the city tries to make the Obama Presidential Center an economic engine for the city’s South Side.

Obviously, after launching a furious lobbying effort, developers and residents in Washington Park were disappointed.

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Martin Nesbitt, chairman of the Obama Foundation, pointed out that Washington Park and Jackson Park are just a few miles apart.

“We worked our way through the selection process and the choice . . . was not an easy one,” he said.

“But the president and first lady saw that both sites were exceptional locations and we actually didn’t think we ended up having to choose between them. This is actually one community and the distinction between Washington Park and Woodlawn is really an artificial one. We think locating the center here is probably the best way to benefit the larger South Side,” Nesbitt added.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has to be ecstatic.

After all, his image has taken a beating, especially in the African-American community.

Besides the ongoing policing controversies and battles with the Chicago Teachers Union, the mayor failed in his effort to help one of the city’s leading African-American philanthropists, Mellody Hobson and husband George Lucas, win their epic battle to build a “Star Wars” museum on the lakefront.

“As an African-American who has spent my entire life in this city I love, it saddens me that young black and brown children will be denied the chance to benefit from what this museum will offer,” Hobson said at the time in a written statement.

Proof that the mayor’s stock had fallen was evident at the recent Democratic National Convention. Despite his close ties to both the Obamas and the Clintons, Emanuel didn’t get a speaking spot.

But that political snub is nothing when compared to the gift the mayor has been given.

Emanuel now has the means to fulfill his promise to make the South Side sparkle like the rest of the city.

“I didn’t care if it was on the West Side or the South Side as long as it wasn’t on the upper West Side. . . . I want to make sure the entire city of Chicago, and specifically the South Side of Chicago, benefits from a once-in-a-lifetime cultural and educational investment,” he said.

This project is not just about the tourists it will bring.

Because of this investment, many more Chicagoans will want to come home to the South Side.