The Obama Library: A Once In A Lifetime Opportunity? Part I

Note:  This is the first part of an essay I read at last Thursday’s Frunchroom reading series in Beverly. 


Like most of my neighbors, I’ve been paying close attention to every scrap of news released about the proposed Obama Presidential Library.

The construction of the library and its campus will have a profound effect on the quality of my life, the liveability of east Woodlawn and the footprint of Jackson Park.  At this point, the question is—will it be for better or for worse?

As someone who was a strong proponent of Jackson Park landing the library, I was excited that the complex would be a mere two blocks away from my home.  Nonetheless, as the plan to build the library starts to take shape, this new scenario has the same old feeling of as business as usual.

And when I say business as usual, I mean the plum contracts and important hiring decisions going to those who are connected and the rest of us left with the scraps.

To be completely honest with you:  I expect this type of behavior and it wouldn’t surprise me.  That’s the Chicago way.

What I, and I’m sure a few others were expecting, is that we ceded a part of our beautiful and historic park for a brick and mortar legacy of President Obama, and in return the neighborhood actually received an economic kickstart that has been absent for decades.  

While the building of the library will not immediately address the perceptions some folks have about Woodlawn and the south side, it would bring in people who aren’t familiar with the stunning natural beauty and classic buildings of our neighborhoods. But more importantly (and hopefully) it would bring future investment.

Yet as news of the process is being released, I’m seeing little input or consideration from those of us who actually live here.  The only opportunities for the general public—and not a carefully curated guest list—to have some type of input were the series of meetings a few weeks ago where we were told about the impending change in the traffic patterns brought on by the library’s construction.

I did not misspeak when I said that the attendees were told about the impending change in the traffic patterns.  Yes, input from the general public was sought after the meeting in three breakout sessions, but if you believe that what I heard at the South Shore Cultural Center isn’t set in stone, I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.

And that’s what raised my hackles—the good folks from the Obama Foundation and the park district did all of this work to present this information, but in my opinion they did so in a partial manner. The thrust of the presentation was that a significant portion of Cornell Drive between Stony Island on the south and Lake Shore Drive on the north is to be shut down.

Thanks for giving us the information of why you’re going to close down a major traffic artery, but if you really want to give complete information, I personally would have welcomed reports from CDOT (Chicago Department of Transportation), the CTA, IDOT (IL Department of Transportation) and Streets and San just to name a few.

If you shut down a majority of Cornell, how is that going to affect wear and tear on Stony Island and Lake Shore Drive?  How is that going to affect commute times for communities where the CTA is the only way to get from point A to point B?  Can our current infrastructure take this extra stress?  Will new traffic lights be erected at intersections that currently have none?  Has a traffic study been commissioned?

That’s the level and type of detail I expect to be on hand so I can make an informed and sound decision about the library’s impact on my community.

When I went to (and tweeted about) the first meeting about the OPL, none of this information was presented.  My friend and neighbor went to one of the other meetings at Hyde Park High School and didn’t hear any of that information either but did remember hearing about underpasses on Stony.

And that’s another thing:  I love a great Power Point slide show, but as someone who keeps an office running I’m a huge fan of referring back to a written document.  I’ve noticed throughout all of these meetings—and I very well may be mistaken—a lack of any type of written material produced by the Foundation made available to the public.  Once again, I could be mistaken—it could be that at subsequent meetings handout of highlights were provided.  Just because I wasn’t there or didn’t get one, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that while the Obama Presidential Center hasn’t visibly shown that community input has been a factor in their decision making, they currently have several digital avenues where you can take a survey about how you use Jackson Park (Landscape Survey) and give the foundation the name of “someone making a positive difference in your community.”

That is a great start to engage digitally.  What is missing in this strategy is the opportunity for people to make their voices heard and their wishes know without the use of a smart phone, tablet or a computer.  The good folks at the Obama Foundation haven’t really taken into account that not everyone communicates digitally.  Not everyone has a Twitter or Insta account.  Not everyone is able or comfortable enough to express themselves in a written medium.  And just because someone either chooses not to or cannot engage in the preferred method of communication doesn’t mean their input will be any less valuable.

I thought the point was to be inclusive, not exclusive.

Read part 2 here.

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