Will Obama's Library Drive Economic Development on Chicago's South Side?

Chicago's South Side prepares for a new library.

A portion of Jackson Park, in Chicago, may house Barack Obama's presidential library. (Photo: Melissa Farlow/Getty)

May 20, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Adrienne Samuels Gibbs is a writer specializing in cultural analysis, urban affairs, and the arts. Her work has appeared in Chicago magazine, the Chicago Sun-Times, Ebony, and The Boston Globe, and on NBC.

At last week’s press conference announcing that Barack Obama’s presidential library would be built on Chicago’s South Side, protesters stood outside demanding more city medical services. Supporters, meanwhile, applauded the president for setting the stage for a new wave of development in an often neglected part of the city.

“This will be a catalyst for the South Side,” said Bernita Johnson-Gabriel, an economic development executive, noting that certain sections of the South Side, where she lives, have long struggled to attract diverse, sustainable restaurants and stores. Now, she says, “we will have to have more restaurants, and people will want to shop."

In many ways, Johnson-Gabriel speaks for Chicago. Obama rose to political prominence from Chicago’s South Side. For much of his presidency, people have wondered about his post–White House Chicago connections. Would the Obama family return to its home in Hyde Park, a leafy South Side neighborhood that houses the University of Chicago? In a video released during the press conference, Obama explained his rationale for basing his foundation and library in the Windy City: “All the strands of my life came together, and I really became a man, when I moved to Chicago. That’s where I was able to apply that early idealism to try to work in communities in public service. That’s where I met my wife. That’s where my children were born.”

Officials are expected to choose a location for the library within the next year. There are two options: Washington Park and Jackson Park, two of the city’s most prized stretches of parkland. The library is expected to be built by 2021 and to generate about 1,900 permanent jobs.

That the library will rise among the historic boulevards and buildings of the central South Side makes sense. It will be a welcome addition to either of the parks, where on any given day there are cricket matches, soccer tournaments, family barbecues, salmon fishers, and house parties. The areas closest to the parks have a classic vibe, with a mix of mansions from the Gilded Age and trendy mid-rise condos dotting boulevards. Downtown Chicago’s skyscrapers can be seen from the South Side’s streets. There is crime, but numbers have been falling for a decade, a story rarely reported by national news outlets. The South Side is massive: It comprises 60 percent of Chicago’s land and is home to everyone: rich, middle-income, poor, white, black, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Jamaican, doctors, lawyers, millionaires, pimps, and police.

The problem is that stereotypes and institutionalized racism make it difficult to bring new, trendy businesses to certain areas. Right now, Hyde Park—a high-income, largely white enclave with its own main street, movie theater, hotel, fresh grocers, and flashy restaurants—largely enjoys such businesses because of the investments of the University of Chicago.

But outside Hyde Park’s bubble, many South Side residents—no matter their race or income—live in a food desert. Driving several miles to find quality fresh produce and vegetables is the norm. The same is true for trendy shopping.

Barack Obama campaigns during the Bud Billiken
parade in 2004 on the South Side of Chicago, Illinois.
(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Johnson-Gabriel points to the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum, which transformed a section of Little Rock, Arkansas. The facility prompted the development of more than 2,200 hotel rooms and a roughly 64 percent increase in tax revenue.

Residents support the Obama library, but they want more. For example, Chicago’s South Side does not have an emergency room equipped to handle severely wounded adults and children older than 15. So people who have endured life-threatening trauma—gunshots to the head or car accidents—must travel at least 10 miles to the nearest high-level trauma facility. “Any addition to the South Side is great, but there are lives being lost—and trauma is the leading cause of death for black people on the South Side,” says Morris Moore, a resident. Moore recently delivered a letter to the home of Martin Nesbitt, chair of the Obama Foundation, urging him to push the University of Chicago to reopen a trauma center for all residents. “It’s unacceptable that the forefront of medicine is in our neighborhood and calls itself a neighbor and says there’s nothing we can do,” Moore says.

The library would be good for business. “Every contractor I know—black or white—is excited about the Obama library,” says Larry Huggins, owner of Riteway-Huggins Construction Services, one of Chicago’s most successful black-owned firms. Chicago requires that roughly 25 percent of construction work go to firms owned by people of color or women. “You’re talking about a project that’s half a billion dollars,” he says. “Think about all the development that will happen.”

As president of the Washington Park Chamber of Commerce, Donna Hampton-Smith welcomes the new development. Nevertheless, she wants city leaders to create mechanisms to help residents—particularly older black people—to afford to live in their homes after the arrival of new apartments, hotels, restaurants, and tourists. “There has to be a commitment of a certain amount of affordable and moderate-income housing,” she says.

The Obama library will show the world what South Siders already know about their community: It is beautiful and worthy of positive attention. So much of the Chicago narrative centers on violence, but that’s just one piece of urbanity. The library will help change the city’s narrative.