Obama Foundation officially announces South Side library

“All the strands of my life came together and I really became a man when I moved to Chicago.”

By Maggie Loughran

The Barack Obama Foundation announced on Tuesday that the Barack Obama Presidential Center will be located on the South Side of Chicago. In the coming months, the Foundation will choose either Jackson or Washington Park as the site of the Center, which will include a library, museum, office, and activity space. Martin Nesbitt, chairman of the board of the Foundation, expects the doors to open sometime in 2020 or 2021.

“This day has been a long time coming and over the past few days, it has become the worst-kept secret in the City of Chicago,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel at a press conference at the Gary Comer Youth Center on the South Side. “But today we can finally say the words that all of Chicago has been waiting to hear: The Obama presidential library is coming home to the City of Chicago.”

The South Side personally and politically influenced President Obama, who began his career in Hyde Park as a community organizer. “All the strands of my life came together and I really became a man when I moved to Chicago,” Obama said in a video announcement on the Foundation’s website. “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.”

In the same video, Mrs. Obama called herself a “South Sider.”

Overwhelming community support helped the University of Chicago win the bid over Columbia University, the University of Hawaii, and the University of Illinois at Chicago. “The reason the library is coming to the city of Chicago is because we came together, not as different communities, but as one city with a common purpose,” Emanuel said.

The University drafted the proposal for the South Side, but will neither oversee nor fund the project. The Obama Foundation will independently raise money for the Center and eventually turn the operation of the library and museum over to the National Archives and Records Administration.

“The idea of a presidential library as a great urban institution is new, and the realization of the Obama Presidential Center will bring this idea to life,” said University President Robert Zimmer at the press conference. “We are honored that the University of Chicago will have the opportunity to collaborate with the Obama Presidential Center.”

Shortly after the announcement was made, Zimmer wrote in an e-mail to faculty, students, and staff: “The University will support efforts in community engagement, including planning, economic development, and individual and institutional collaborations.”

Not everyone in the community is happy about the decision. The nonprofit organization Friends of the Park (FOTP) released a statement following the announcement expressing disappointment that the Center will be built in an existing park. Lauren Moltz, acting executive director of FOTP, is concerned that the undertaking will negatively alter the parkland that makes the South Side of Chicago unique. She was quoted in the press release: “‘We would like to ensure that any impact on historic Jackson/ Washington Park will be minimal and will fit within the vision of Frederick Law Olmsted’s design.’” 

Carol Adams, community member and former president and CEO of the DuSable Museum of African American History, closed the press conference by emphasizing the transformative power the presidential library will bring to Chicago. She called the South Side “a community overflowing with assets and yet in need of the catalytic engine the Obama Presidential Center surely will be…. We eagerly await the economic, cultural, and educational development that is sure to follow.”