The controversial Barack Obama Presidential Center will be built less than two miles from the Pit Stop 500 oil and lube joint on southeast Chicago’s Stony Island Avenue. That’s where then–State Senator Obama informed me 15 years ago that he would be making a run for the United States Senate in the 2004 midterm elections and needed a million dollars to win a crowded Democratic primary. He was getting his Jeep Cherokee serviced; I was having my European car seen to at the same time. He told me it was “a pretty fancy car.” While the auto technicians worked on our vehicles, he gauged my interest in working on his campaign. We met again a few weeks later at Mellow Yellow, a popular café in the Hyde Park neighborhood where he lived, to discuss this further.
I first met Obama in 1997, when he presented me and a colleague with an award for our reporting on National Public Radio about working-poor communities and the declining state of public housing on Chicago’s South Side. My background as a native of that community might have helped him win the support of public-housing residents who had failed to vote for him in his run for the House in 2000 against Congressman Bobby Rush. But I was 24 and had recently become the guardian of two younger family members. I didn’t have the time or focus at that point to help.
The last time I met Obama was at a fundraiser for his presidential campaign in the summer of 2007, at the tony mansion of a wealthy Wall Street trader in the North Side’s Lincoln Park. He’d gotten his million dollars, and then some; black Suburban SUVs lined the street in front of the mansion. Once he’d entered and worked the people in the room, I stood my hand out to bump his fist. “Long time no see,” he said.
Now, if all goes according to plan, my South Side neighborhood will soon be overlooked by the 235-foot tower of the Obama Center. Work is due to begin this year and be completed by 2021. Unless a lawsuit filed by the predominantly white conservation group Protect our Parks succeeds, more than 19 acres of the publicly owned green spaces in Jackson Park will be privatized for the center, its 450-car parking lot and a new PGA-level golf course designed by Tiger Woods. A major road artery will be closed, creating traffic congestion.
Obama says he wants the center to be “the world’s premier institution for training young people and leadership to make a difference in their communities.” But a substantial part of the community that gave him his own organizing skills—and his springboard to power—sees the Center as a Trojan horse for developers seeking to profit from the South Side’s devalued real estate, especially the potentially lucrative stretch of land along Lake Michigan.
Some of Obama’s early supporters in Chicago’s African-American middle class are championing the construction. They view the Obama Center as an opportunity to bring tourism-generated economic development to a systemically blighted community, where vacant lots and empty schools litter the neighborhoods and unemployment rates are higher than in rural Mississippi. Working-class adults and teenagers occupy street corners, hustling loose cigarettes and narcotics as kids walk by after school. Adults and kids alike are victims of Chicago’s machine politics: In this city, corruption and huge cost overruns for development projects always seem to siphon away the benefits the working poor are promised. What will make the Obama Center development any different?