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Obamas break ground on presidential center, calling it way ‘to give back to Chicago and to the South Side’

The city’s first couple, who no longer live full time in the city, took a walk down memory lane, going over why they chose Jackson Park for the center. But the former president promised the center won’t just be “an exercise in nostalgia or looking backwards.”

Former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama break ground for the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park on Tuesday.
Former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama break ground for the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park on Tuesday.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama returned to Chicago on Tuesday for the official groundbreaking for the Obama Presidential Center, promising it will be a “university for activism and social change.”

“This day’s been a long time comin’,” the nation’s 44th president told the limited crowd when he took to the podium in Jackson Park.

“Chicago is where almost everything that is most precious to me began,” the former president said, a rendering of his presidential center behind him.

“It feels natural for Michelle and me to want to give back to Chicago and to the South Side in particular. ... We will always be grateful for that, and the Obama Presidential Center is our way of repaying some of what this amazing city has given us, but we’re also building this center because we believe it can speak to the struggles of our time.”

The Obamas, who were introduced by students from Chicago Public Schools, were joined by Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Mayor Lori Lightfoot at a plot in the South Side park, which will soon host the center.

Former President Barack Obama speaks in Jackson Park on Tuesday before breaking ground for the Obama Presidential Center.
Former President Barack Obama speaks in Jackson Park on Tuesday before breaking ground for the Obama Presidential Center.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

During speeches before they put shovels into the ground, Lightfoot, Pritzker and the former first lady spoke about Tuesday as the start of the “next chapter” in the center’s journey.

“This groundbreaking marks the next chapter in a journey that began several years ago, with many twists and turns, but due to the perseverance, dedication and the hard work of many, we’ve arrived at this momentous day,” Lightfoot said. “This is the future of the South Side that will be created in partnership with the community.”

Touting her roots on the South Side, and her love for the city, the former first lady said the center “allows us to live one of those values we learned right here, and that is to give back something big and important and meaningful to the community that has given us so much.”

Former first lady Michelle Obama speaks before the groundbreaking for the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park on Tuesday.
Former first lady Michelle Obama speaks before the groundbreaking for the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park on Tuesday.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The governor said Illinois is now known as the “land of Lincoln and Obama” since both presidents have monuments to their legacies in the state.

“The center will grow as the Obamas have lived,” creating new leaders and supporting their work, Pritzker said. “Today, with the groundbreaking of the Obama Presidential Center, like the state of Illinois there is abundance and opportunity ahead.”

Ceremonial groundbreaking celebrations for the complex, which won’t include the official presidential library bearing the former president’s name, began Monday and continued Tuesday with limited in-person attendance due to the pandemic.

Former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, center, break ground for the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park on Tuesday, with Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
Former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, center, break ground for the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park on Tuesday, with Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Ahead of the groundbreaking, the site at 61st and South Stony Island was primed for construction to begin, with excavators and bulldozers ready for operation and six silver shovels poised to be picked up, their blades hovering just above the dirt.

The city’s first couple, who no longer live full-time in the city, took a walk down memory lane before scooping soil, going over “a few, pretty good reasons” why they chose Jackson Park for the center.

The South Side neighborhood is where Michelle Obama grew up, where the former president started his political career surrounded by a “vibrant neighborhood and a community where we believe we can help make a difference.”

The neighborhood was also the former president’s “entryway into Chicago.” He told of driving here in the summer of 1985 in a “pretty janky” car, coming off the Skyway and driving through Jackson Park which was “a lot more beautiful than I expected.”

Though he reminisced, the former president promised the center wouldn’t just be “an exercise in nostalgia or looking backwards,” a collection of campaign memorabilia or the former first lady’s ball gowns — “although I know everyone will come to see those,” the former president joked.

It will be a “living, thriving home for concerts and cultural events” and a hub for those who “want to strengthen democratic ideals.”

As a reminder of the controversy that has marked the project, a plane trailing a banner that read “Stop cutting down trees. Move OPC” flew over the site shortly before the program began.

A plane flying a banner that read “Stop cutting down trees. Move OPC” flew over the site shortly before the Obamas took the stage for the official groundbreaking of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park Sept. 28, 2021.
A plane flying a banner that read “Stop cutting down trees. Move OPC” flew over the site shortly before the Obamas took the stage for the official groundbreaking of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park Sept. 28, 2021.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th), one of the City Council members whose ward includes the center, said there’s “always talk about the lack of investment in the South and West sides — now we have investment in the South Side.”

“What we’ve seen before, what I’ve seen before with this type of investment — like it was with the Comer Foundation and Greater Grand Crossing — that when people actually invest in our communities, our communities thrive,” Hairston said. “So, I’m excited to see that and so that we’re able to develop the kind of economic corridors and districts that other neighborhoods have because we surely are major consumers.”

Nearing the end of his presidency, Obama selected Jackson Park, the site of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and listed in the National Register of Historic Places, for the presidential center bearing his name.

His choice sparked controversy and protests from housing and community activists who say the incoming center will cause residents to be priced out of their homes and from conservationists who took issue with the removal of trees for the project or argued it would negatively affect bird habitats.

Obama alluded to that in his remarks, saying “we’ll plant new trees” and “provide new habitats for birds and wildlife.”

“I believe we have it in us to reimagine our institutions, make them responsive to today’s challenges, rebuild our society in a way that gives more and more people a better life,” Obama said.

“I believe it because I’ve seen it ... right here in Chicago from the North Side to the South Side to the West Side. ... There are young people who are not waiting for someone else to solve big problems.”