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Who will protect stately trees from the Obama Presidential Center?

Jackson Park is the site of the proposed Obama Presidential Center. / Associated Press

I know I’m odd, as trees still mean something to me. As a so-called civilization, we seem to be more adept at cutting down trees, rather than planting or preserving them. When spring arrived, I promised myself that I would spend more time with trees than usual, learning to identify new ones and to appreciate them all more than I already do. And trees really don’t belong to anyone; they are a rare form of public property.

I have some long-time favorites: black walnut and its beautiful wood; red mulberry and pawpaw with their sweet, delicious fruits; and the eastern cottonwood and its towering, shade-casting presence.


The cottonwood is the most common tree in North America east of the Mississippi. At the Wolf Lake Overlook on the far Southeast Side, there are specimens over 50 feet tall with massive trunks. If one were to cut one down — in one’s imagination of course! — the stump could easily sit four people for dinner. Long ago, on a blue fall day under a high, bright sun, I came to associate the sound of the wind high in the cottonwoods there with the sound of Time itself.

In Harold Washington Park, between Hyde Park Boulevard and Lake Shore Drive, there are cottonwood specimens with circumferences of roughly 10 to 12 feet. And so too for Jackson Park, especially between Stony Island Boulevard and Cornell Drive, land that will be part of (or rather subsumed by), the Obama Presidential Center. The cottonwoods there are lofty, leafy and stately; there is a sense of gravitas to them. For decades — for some perhaps a century? — they have welcomed thousands into the coolness of their shade.

With the groundbreaking on the Center scheduled for sometime next year, I wonder what will happen to those cottonwoods. Will they be cut down, preserved or replaced with lesser species? Cheap silver maples come to mind.

But those decisions are in the hands of the Obama Foundation, and sadly, I have come to see the Foundation as a form of shadow government. Take, for example, the newly formed nonprofit, ancillary to the Foundation, that will channel the supposed economic stimulus generated by the Center into the adjacent neighborhoods. At the end of August, Lynn Sweet wrote a column in which appeared the names of those behind that entity (“Neighborhood coattails,” Aug. 30). Not one name listed belonged to an elected official. Two do work within the city government, but both hold appointed positions.

Is this also true then for the Foundation as a whole? Sadly, I believe this is so. The city has given decision-making control over a large section of public land to a private entity that is not accountable to the public. A shadow government unto itself.

I would argue, however, that the situation must change, and soon. Starting on October 24th, both the Illinois House and Senate will enter the fall veto session. One of the items to be considered is whether the State should give 100 million dollars to the Obama Foundation for the Presidential Center. As we have already given them precious public land, essentially for free, I say, “No!”

However, if the Foundation receives that money, or any other amount of public tax dollars, the Foundation and Mr. Obama are then ethically accountable to the public, and especially to the residents of the neighborhoods that hope to most directly benefit from the Presidential Center. Public money demands public accountability.

But here I’ve wandered off the path by talking about money and politics, when I wanted to talk about trees. It would be nice, then, if the Foundation saw fit to save and nurture the trees in Jackson Park, incorporating those stately cottonwoods into the overall design of the Center. After all, those trees are long-standing members of the community and they should enjoy some rights. Saving those trees would be a way for the Foundation, and Mr. Obama, to step out of the dark opaque shadows and into the cool transparent shade of those neighborly cottonwoods.

But only time will tell.

John Vukmirovich is a Chicago-area writer, researcher and book reviewer.

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