Although the presidential library is now as natural a part of our national trove of civic rituals and commemorations as the Pledge of Allegiance, it is, like the pledge, a fairly new one. The first presidential library was FDR’s in Hyde Park, New York. Based on his own sketches, it opened in 1941, one year before the pledge was adopted by Congress, not long after the completion of the Lincoln Memorial and while the Jefferson was under construction.

The Roosevelt library established a series of precedents that have endured. First, the president himself is, in effect, the author of his own memorial. Second, the project is built with private funds and then conveyed to the care of the National Archives. Third, every president gets one. Fourth, the president initially curates its holdings and materials. And finally, its location is completely discretionary; there are no presidential libraries in the nation’s capital. 

The thirteen presidential libraries (Hoover, envying Roosevelt’s, built his out of sequence in 1962) are part of the panoply of memorializations for the chief executive, including birthplaces, boyhood homes, ancestral mansions and holiday spots, not to mention airports, cultural centers and other civic structures. Presidents rated distinguished (Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR and, eventually, Eisenhower) are honored with “pure” memorials in the vicinity of the National Mall. But the presidential library quickly became an executive custom, and each version to date has expanded on a basic formula. The main component is the archive, and these have seen an exponential expansion in size, from the 17 million documents in the 40,000-square-foot Roosevelt Library to the 78 million in Clinton’s 153,000-square-foot “Bridge to the 21st Century.” These massive deposits of paper are now joined by countless terabytes of digital data.

From the start, too, a museum has been part of the parti. These have grown from modest collections of memorabilia and presidential swag (Carter’s museum includes a portrait of George Washington woven into a Persian carpet, an unfortunate gift from the shah of Iran) to include trinkets as large as the decommissioned Air Force One installed at the Reagan library in California. Another staple is a reproduction of the Oval Office, occasionally at slightly reduced dimensions. Every presidential museum has one, save two: Nixon’s, which reproduces the Lincoln Sitting Room instead, and Hoover’s. Perhaps the most striking of these is at the LBJ library, where it is built at 7/8 scale in order to fit into its new home at the University of Texas at Austin, which nonetheless had to have part of its roof blown out to accommodate the height of the room. Johnson used to work in the simulacrum: at its reduced size, it surely increased his own apparent dimensions. The Oval Office has also been reproduced unofficially countless times, including in the house of Tampa millionaires Tom and June Simpson and in the lobby of the San Francisco digital start-up GitHub. One observes the emptying of the signifier.

Johnson’s library—which is the most architecturally distinguished of a largely mediocre lot—also expanded the remit and tenor of the institution by being the first to be located on a university campus and to include a school of public affairs as part of its program. This was at once an important expansion of purpose and LBJ’s riposte to the much-resented hegemony of Eastern institutions in the training of high-level men and women of affairs. This pattern was repeated by both Presidents Bush and by Bill Clinton and Gerald Ford. (Nixon and Reagan were rebuffed in their attempts to find universities that would accommodate them.) Johnson might have been frustrated that the mother of all these centers is the Kennedy School at Harvard. And vigorous ex-presidents have also used their libraries as the sites for their own ongoing philanthropic and political activities, most prominently Clinton and Carter, whose initiatives continue to be consequential.

* * *

This idea of a presidential library as a place for doing good and not simply facilitating scholarship or the ossified appreciation of (or apologetics for) term-time achievements seems particularly relevant in the case of Barack Obama, who will leave office at the ripe old age of 55. He will surely continue to work for equity, justice and peace through a variety of means as he continues his trajectory of public service. However, his deliberations over the potential site for his library bring up another question of service: How could its construction leverage social and environmental transformation? Indeed, President Obama has the opportunity to return to his roots as a community organizer via the infusion of the capital, construction, energy and purpose his presidential center will represent. He should seize the moment to further transform the nature of the institution to suit the contours of his own sensibility, shaking it from the dogmatic slumber of its own creeping Disneyfication, be it play-acting decision-making at George W. Bush’s branch (invade Iraq!) or the life-size statues of Golda Meir and Anwar Sadat at Nixon’s.

Obama’s choices for a location appear to have been narrowed down to Honolulu and several sites in Chicago. Chicago is clearly to be preferred. Not simply is it the city where the Obamas will presumably live post-presidency, but it is where Obama made his first deep contributions in public service and the place to which he returned to begin and advance his political mission. More, the neighborhoods bruited as choices in Chicago (half a dozen have appeared on one list or another) might all strongly benefit from the injection of institutional activity and investment. Although there are appealing arguments for several of these possibilities, far and away the best choice would be Woodlawn, on the city’s South Side; several large vacant sites on 63rd Street most perfectly fit the bill.

Woodlawn has, to put it mildly, had a troubled history. Its origins are as a rural neighborhood that, along with adjoining Hyde Park, was annexed to Chicago in 1889. Soon after, the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, located in Jackson Park, caused a building boom that rapidly increased the population by 20,000 and brought public transport and large and beautiful green spaces. From the start, Woodlawn’s commercial spine was 63rd Street, and the neighborhood developed as a leafy, bourgeois residential zone, its gentility reinforced by the closing of its popular racetrack in 1905 after the city banned betting. Many of the residents were faculty from the nearby University of Chicago, although there was also an early community of middle-class African-American homeowners in West Woodlawn.

However, a restrictive covenant put in place by local landlords in 1928 mostly excluded blacks from the area. This officially endured until being overturned by the Supreme Court in 1948. Beginning with the Depression, the neighborhood began to “tip,” with increasing housing deterioration and subdivision accelerating after the war. A population that was 13 percent African-American in 1930 had hit 95 percent in 2000: between 1930 and 1960, Woodlawn went from 86 percent white to 89 percent black. The number of inhabitants rose to a high of 81,000 in 1960 but dropped precipitously to 27,000 by 1990 and hovers around 25,000 today. By the mid-1970s, housing abandonment was widespread, commerce had fled, and—in a misbegotten piece of planning—the El train being constructed east of Cottage Grove Avenue was demolished.

Segregation, poverty and hostility gave rise to a vivid gang culture, with violent turf warfare between the Blackstone Rangers and the East Side Disciples. At the same time, the University of Chicago was aggressively “defending” and rebuilding Hyde Park with a massive urban renewal regime and found demonizing utility in the specter of danger to the south. But the community was also organizing. With assistance from the legendary Saul Alinsky and the Industrial Areas Foundation, The Woodlawn Organization (TWO) was formed in 1960 to resist encroachment by the university, which had originally seen its territorial perquisites extending to a “natural” boundary at 67th Street—although, as it planned its redevelopment, it realized that its ambitions substantially exceeded its economic and organizational grasp.

Under the dynamic leadership of the Rev. Arthur Brazier, TWO not only took a vanguard role in the neighborhood but became an articulate national voice for community empowerment and civil rights. As TWO garnered power and recognition as an equal player, the tensions between the university and Woodlawn were gradually alleviated and the university pledged a hands-off policy below 61st Street while maintaining the south campus strip between 60th and 61st as a buffer, parts of which it eventually leased to the community. Trust improved and a spirit of cooperation—even alliance—replaced an earlier paternalism.

In its first ten years, TWO followed an arc from the oppositional to the operational, with results that can only be described as mixed. Involvement in education reform, the federal anti-poverty and Model Cities programs, and other government and self-organized initiatives got off to a good start but wound up cruelly thwarted by the power of the Daley machine and by institutional territoriality and inflexibility. In his seminal—and sympathetic—Black Power/White Control, John Hall Fish argues that TWO showed remarkable resilience in the face of dashed hopes and played a key role not simply in consciousness-building and local control but also in keeping the idea of community alive, forestalling a fate far worse than eventually overtook the neighborhood. Notwithstanding this canniness and courage, however, Woodlawn lost almost half its population between 1967 and 1971, in what The Chicago Daily News called “the blitz.” Thousands of fires were set, abandonment accelerated, and the progressive urgency of the Johnson era was replaced by the corruptions of Nixon and the eternal Daley. The result was massive disinvestment and abandonment, which produced the Detroit-like landscape still predominant: gapped blocks, a commercial street without shops and swaths of empty lots.

* * *

But things are changing slowly and for the better: Woodlawn is rife with capacity. TWO continues to operate as a service organization and has played a substantial role in housing renovation and the delivery of social assistance. The university has resumed development of its south campus, a certain amount of market-rate housing has gone up, apartments are being renewed, a particularly derelict housing project—an early success for TWO—is being replaced by a much better version, and the hostility between town and gown has abated substantially. This moment presents a real opportunity to repair this rift to the mutual benefit of the neighborhood and the university: the oppositional stance ultimately benefits neither, and 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.

For this to happen, though, the library must be conceived in a way that previous libraries have not. First, it must become the first presidential center to be truly urban. Predecessors have been part of campuses, isolated in parklike settings or otherwise not woven into the fabric of town. With the exception of the Clinton library, which prompted substantial riverfront gentrification in Little Rock, none has catalyzed the transformation of a community as such a powerful institution might. The Obama library has the opportunity to become a genuinely local player and to contribute to the improvement of everyday life for the neighborhoods that surround it. This will require a physical and social architecture that is supportive, not aggressive or standoffish. It offers the chance to build a model environment.

To achieve this, the library must also expand its scope beyond archive and museum 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. This begins, of course, with establishing a framework of cooperation and empowerment to channel community desires and a structure that will allow it to leverage local assets, which must surely include the world-renowned and prosperous university on its doorstep, an institution with which both Barack and Michelle Obama have had a long association. The tools the president can bring to the situation consist in assuring that Woodlawn authentically benefits, that this is not an occasion for exclusionary gentrification, that the mix of people and uses in Woodlawn is embraced and enhanced with sensitivity, that there be protection, inclusion and opportunity for those at the bottom of the skills and income distribution.

What programs might such a mix involve? The core function of the presidential library—the scholarly archive—is the symbolic center of the project, despite having relatively low rates of use. It should occupy the most consequential site, and I suggest the blocks of 63rd Street between Ellis and Woodlawn. This would allow the building to act as a fulcrum for the revival of Woodlawn’s main street. The creative inclusion of ground-floor commercial and community space could be an interesting challenge for the architect who eventually designs the building. There will surely be a museum, and here another possibility offers itself: a direct relationship with the existing DuSable Museum in Washington Park, the country’s oldest museum of African-American history. Aligning the Obama museum with the DuSable would give it a particular inflection, celebrating a more collective achievement and lifting it from the generic content that has come to characterize too many presidential museums.

But to truly rejuvenate the neighborhood, the Obama library should generate and support a range of additional activities. David Axelrod already directs the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics, and the university has a graduate school of public affairs. But Chicago has no High School of Public Affairs or School of Community Organizing. These could cluster around the library, which would also, presumably, contain whatever facilities Obama’s larger philanthropic endeavors might require as well as an incubator and home for a range of local organizations. A mid-Woodlawn campus including these facilities, the university’s existing charter school and links to other neighborhood schools would kick-start the rebirth of 63rd Street and insinuate its energy throughout Woodlawn. An addition to the complex might be Woodlawn Tech, a center focused on training neighborhood residents for the kinds of biomedical, computational and other technical jobs available at the university and in that burgeoning economic sector.

* * *

Why stop there? The wave of initiative induced by the Obama library might also lead to the construction of one of the most needed—and contested—facilities on the South Side: a level-one trauma center. While this is most logically located in the heart of the university hospital complex, the Obama library might embrace a corollary facility deeper in Woodlawn: a center for nutrition and preventive medicine, to help tackle health issues at the front end, something the first lady has been strongly committed to. Logically, this should be accompanied by a series of sites for physical training and recreation and a system for sharing already extensive resources between the university and its surrounding communities. Finally, the huge reserve of space that Woodlawn offers presents an opportunity for a large-scale and systematic introduction of urban agriculture and community gardens, uses that have begun to flourish throughout Chicago.

While one might expect these facilities to be coordinated by the Obama Center, the larger scale of planning must be harmonized by using these energetic interventions to direct broader objectives still. The current construction of 63rd Street as a low-density residential corridor is a mistake, and the center should catalyze more ambitious, collaborative and sensible planning. Most crucial of all, re-establishing residential density throughout the neighborhood should be planning’s highest objective. Morphologically, the cues are to be taken from existing conditions, from the low-rise default, adding a careful blend of single and attached houses and of multiple dwellings. To facilitate the building of the Obama library, to fill out blocks that are gapped, and to create a continuous green space, it might be useful to move a relatively small number of houses to sites very nearby. Of course, no resident should be displaced from the neighborhood by any of this activity.

A challenge for the ex-president will be to return to his organizer’s career, enlarged by the skills and powers of governing he has acquired over the past two decades. The thrilling task will be to assist Woodlawn to become a model mix of classes, races, histories and desires that can serve as an example to cities everywhere. This will mean that the deployment of subsidy (including the fruits of the anticipated charitable tsunami such presidential plans attract)—in public housing, Section 8 housing, university housing, mortgage-interest-deductible market housing—must cleave to a clear model of fairness and not simply be left to the disinterested vagaries of the market or the municipality and its prejudices. Clearly, this process is dynamic, but it’s important to note that the elements of the program described here are not needs from nowhere, but reflections of the objects of struggle—housing, schools, healthcare, jobs, training, environmental justice, urban connectivity—that have preoccupied Woodlawn for decades. This beleaguered community can only be rebuilt and reassured by transforming the audacity of hope into concrete acts of fulfillment.