A Wary South Side Eyes Obama’s Return

Jackson Park is a 500-acre space bordering Lake Michigan on Chicago’s South Side, and it’s a decidedly mostly black space. On any given summer weekend, families picnic on the grass, class reunions hook up sound systems for cookouts, African drummers play on the edge of the beach’s field house, and people host birthday parties with tents. Each July the Chosen Few DJs Picnic and Music Festival draws tens of thousands of house music lovers. There’s a man who sells $1 charcoal prints of black celebrities, singers, and luminaries such as Barack and Michelle Obama. Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in 1890, today the park is a black Chicago joy.

It’s also poised for a major transformation: In 2021, the Barack Obama Presidential Center is scheduled to open in Jackson Park. The Obama Foundation predicts an economic impact of $339 million during the center’s construction and $177 million annually from the three-building campus. The OPC, according to the Foundation, will create more than 2,000 jobs on the South Side alone once it is open.

Woodlawn and South Shore are the immediate black neighborhoods that will be impacted by the center. Michelle Obama grew up in the latter. Both have solid middle-class pockets. Both long for meaningful economic development. Empty lots dot Woodlawn. South Shore residents wish they had more shopping options outside of nail salons, wig shops and dollar stores. The Obama Center plans show a contiguous campus within Jackson Park, with a community garden, plaza, and a children’s play area with a sledding hill—something the former First Lady says she lacked growing up nearby.

But amid the celebrations about hosting a center devoted to America’s first black president, there’s also consternation about what the complex will mean, not only for Jackson Park but for the surrounding neighborhoods. Bird watchers are worrying that their park sanctuary will be snatched. Fears of gentrification have been stoked among nearby residents. As renderings are revealed and details about the site trickle out, questions emerge about winners and losers.

And South Siders want more say about what happens next.

Specifically, residents are pushing the Obama Foundation and other local partners to commit to a community benefits agreement (CBA), a binding document designed to protect affordable housing and ensure equitable economic development. The OPL presents a canvas of potential opportunity for local businesses—from hotels and restaurants to souvenir and tchotchkes shops. Jobs have been on the top of folks’ minds. Will there be contracts earmarked for African Americans?

The Obama Foundation has been saying that CBA isn’t necessary in this case—after all, this isn’t exactly some rapacious developer moving into the neighborhood. But community groups aren’t budging: Those gaudy employment estimates need to be put in writing as binding promises. They want a CBA with not only the foundation, but the city and University of Chicago, both partners in the center.

“Community benefit agreements are the best way communities around the world have been able to hold developers accountable to the communities where they seek to build,” says J. Brian Malone, executive director of the grassroots Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, which represents low-income and working black folk. “This isn’t about whether we trust the first black president to do the right thing. This is simply business.”

In the CBA, South Side community groups are asking the developers to commit to a number of key benefits designed to ensure that a majority of jobs go to residents, including set asides for ex-offenders and low-income people. Workforce development programs would be established to help meet local hiring requirements. In addition, the CBA calls for developing a black business corridor, supporting local small business development, and setting aside new housing for low-income renters. The aim: making sure current residents don’t have to move out when the economic benefits of the Obama center roll in.

“Displacement has to be taken seriously,” says Malone. “Potentially, we have a situation where the intended beneficiaries of this development will have to commute to take advantage of it.”

The Obama Foundation says a CBA is a narrow tool. Michael Strautmanis, the vice president of community engagement for the foundation, told me this spring that he is working to ensure black people get access to union jobs. An inclusion council is addressing diversity and will publicly release audits on hiring. Strautmanis understands the distrust, he said, but would rather work with organizations rather than ironing out contractual language with dozens of groups.

CBAs have been negotiated in cities around the country, often between community groups and a real estate developer with a splashy project in a low-income urban neighborhood. The most successful of these binding agreements is often considered to the one that paved the way for the Staples Center in Los Angeles. In 2001, that CBA outlined job training programs and an affordable housing development. Community support allowed the developers to receive more than $70 million in subsidies from the city. Some scholars argue CBAs haven’t been around long enough to measure whether they’ve been successful. In Brooklyn, some critics say the Barclays Center for the Brooklyn Nets has been more of a publicity stunt than an enforceable contract.

The Obama Foundation may not be a developer, but that doesn’t matter to CBA advocates. They know that the OPC will be an economic boon. Change is going to come. When South Siders see real estate listings promoting the center and hear about speculator developers, they get nervous. They don’t want a land grab.  

Meanwhile, the center itself aspires to be more than the traditional presidential library, or warehouse for memorabilia and archive where children are dragged for field trips. Three buildings will comprise the center—a museum, a library, and a forum, where he envisions the likes of Chance the Rapper, Spike Lee, Steven Spielberg and Bruce Springsteen teaching classes for youth. His presidential center, Obama has promised, will train the next generation of community organizers. Programming is starting this fall even without the buildings.  

And therein lies the contradiction: A CBA is the very thing community organizers are fighting for, and would likely advocate for in other cities. Obama the developer finds himself in a different position than Obama the president, or Obama the community organizer who once fought for South Side equity.

That twist wasn’t lost on the audience when Obama returned to Chicago for an invite-only spring community meeting at the South Shore Cultural Center near Jackson Park, where he and Michelle once had a wedding reception. “Beyond sort of whatever targets are set, what I and Michelle intend to do is make sure we are working with credible folks to say, ‘How do we maximize people who are being employed in the community? How do we maximize contractors and vendors in the community?’” Obama said.

Welcomed words, but for CBA proponents, the mantra remains “put it in writing.” And that’s something the foundation is continuing to resist. At another meeting last week, Obama spoke again, via webcam, about why his foundation rejected the idea of signing an agreement with the community. “It’s not inclusive enough,” he said. “I would then be siding with who? What particular organizations would end up speaking for everybody in that community? People will come out of the woodwork to be gatekeepers.”

If the Obama Foundation doesn’t bend to public pressure for a CBA, meaningful overtures will have to be done with employment, housing, and economic development. There’s some sign that the foundation understands that priority: At the end of August, it tapped four construction teams to apply to be construction manager. They are either local minority-owned firms or are partnered with one. The firms must detail how they will subcontract to companies owned by women, people of color, veterans, people with disabilities, and LGBTQ individuals. In addition, the firms have to show a plan for engaging the formerly incarcerated.

Malone said this is “definitely a step in the right direction,” but the CBA would require weekly monitoring on jobs and calls for a job center on the site of the presidential center.

One thing is clear: Whether it’s a CBA or another tool, all parties are going to have to find a way to gather at a table and iron out their differences. The last time the South Side witnessed such a dramatic transformation was in 1893, when the World’s Columbian Exposition descended upon this site. Big changes are coming again to the South Side. And the potential for a long-lasting legacy is ripe.