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?
The Obama Foundation has made vague promises to “support neighborhood stabilization efforts,” “create a strategy around vacant land,” and ensure that residents who want to stay in the area “will be given the tools…to do so.” But Obama himself has rebuffed a Community Benefits Agreement put forward by a South Side coalition of activists, working-class tenants, and other locals who say they welcome the center on the condition that it benefit their community. The CBA’s modest demands include a set-aside for low-income housing, a freeze on property taxes, and a promise that most new jobs will go to local people. When Obama addressed a community event to discuss the center by video link, he refused to engage seriously with the CBA lobby. But many of the CBA’s supporters are the people who watched him with tears in their eyes as he spoke in Grant Park the night the world knew he would be president.
Some of those activists point out that the younger Obama would have pushed for just such an agreement in his community-organizing days. But the elites who will bankroll the Obama Center care little about his ascent from the humble South Side to the world stage. After two scandal-free terms in the Oval Office, the Obamas have constructed a perfect image, along with the institutional capacity to insure a return on charitable investments. They’re in an ideal position to pay off the political mortgages incurred to raise the billions required to finance one Senate and two presidential campaigns, and to become the preeminent mahogany avatars of the American dream.
In his eight years as president, Obama failed to raise the living standards of those who knew and loved him first in his adopted home of Chicago. In these chronically poor communities, intractable unemployment and gun violence can’t be cured with sound-bites and A-list celebrity events, like the Obama Foundation Summit held last year at the Marriott Marquis, whose opening session was titled “The Fierce Urgency of Now.” The following week, less than a mile from where Prince Harry had headlined a conversation with businesswoman Mellody Hobson around “ways youth can be drivers of community engagement and development,” around a hundred adults and students congregated outside the predominantly African-American Dunbar Vocational Career Academy High School. As far as I know, none of them had been invited to the foundation’s summit.
Now, in a city with rising property taxes and declining public services, the Obama Foundation is enlisting Chicago’s historically fragmented African-American political class to advocate on its behalf. Obsequious politicians on the City Council have pledged $175 million for infrastructure needed by the Obama Center. Meanwhile, both the city and the State of Illinois have accumulated tens of billions of dollars of public debt, with credit ratings among the worst in the United States.
The milquetoast civic-engagement philanthropy that’s pulling in six- and seven-figure sums from business and Hollywood elites like George Lucas and Bill Gates is a far cry from Obama’s early efforts to reverse generational neglect by the city’s political oligarchs. And it’s taking place alongside an old fashioned land grab on the periphery of the University of Chicago’s campus, where Obama wrote his best-selling autobiography, Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. Together with the University of Chicago and its donor base of wealthy alumni, the Obama Center is spearheading a robust partnership for gentrification you can believe in.
Many African-Americans are aware of the University of Chicago’s duplicitous history, going back to its “urban renewal” policy in the 1950s and ’60s when it advocated for massive public-housing corridors to contain the growing African-American population and keep it from moving into historically white parts of the city. This arrangement was also convenient for generations of African-American politicians, who wanted to consolidate their political base rather than let it fragment as families moved out of the ghettos. In January, 185 professors at the University signed an open letter calling plans for the Obama Center “socially regressive” and warning that “it will soon become an object-lesson in the mistakes of the past.”
The professors’ intervention suggests that a new conversation is possible about the challenges this project presents, with a diverse and credible constituency. But that chapter can’t be opened if the Obama Foundation continues to focus on Chicago’s oligarchy and political status quo.
Philanthropy combined with civic engagement is what the Obamas are selling to the people of Chicago’s South Side. Like any good business proposal, real-estate development subsidized by charity, government, and direct investment can push up market rates and yield huge dividends, as long as poor people accept their marginalization. The private windfall the Obama Center will produce will change the socioeconomic landscape of the communities around it forever. But Chicago’s most famous political son should be lifting up the working poor. After all, it was on their backs that he built his career when he was the underdog who had no bone.