The case for Obama Presidential Library in Woodlawn

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Imagine a Barack Obama Presidential Library and Museum in Woodlawn on Chicago’s South Side, a truly urban institution committed to the needs of its neighborhood.

It would eschew the creeping Disneyfication of other presidential museums, such as the life-size statues of Golda Meir and Anwar Sadat at the Nixon Library. Its purpose would be scholarship and community activism, reflecting Obama’s own life story, and it would work closely with other Chicago institutions, beginning with the University of Chicago but also including the nearby DuSable Museum of African American History.

That’s the proposal laid out in the Oct. 28 edition of The Nation by Michael Sorkin, the liberal weekly journal’s architecture critic. It’s a plan worth serious debate, and certainly the most specific vision we’ve seen yet for Obama’s future presidential library.

Woodlawn is slowly changing for the better, Sorkin says, with improvements in housing and a more productive relationship with the University of Chicago next door. An Obama Library could be a tipping point for much greater community rejuvenation.

The “addition of the Obama library to the mix offers a striking opportunity to leverage great synergies, to effect a coherent program of spatialized mutual aid, and to foster change that everyone can believe and share in,” Sorkin writes.

The Obama Library and Museum, he continues, could be more than an archive or touristy museum. It could be expand its vision “to become a truly living place, to embrace forms of activism that are directed not simply at global issues — peace in the Middle East or malaria in Africa — but also at the needs of the neighborhood that gives it a home.”

For the library side of the project, Sorkin proposes a very specific address: 63rd Street between Ellis and Woodlawn.

Presidential libraries and museums are a tricky business. Because of how they are funded — much of it from private fund-raising — they tend toward hagiography in the treatment of their namesakes. And they had better pull in the tourists.

That certainly would be true in this case. If the aim of an Obama library and museum is, in part, to rejuvenate a neighborhood, it had better show at least a little respect for good old Walt Disney.

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