UChicago Students Cannot Forget the Communities Obama’s Presidential Library Will Affect the Most

By William Thomas

For better or for worse, the Obama presidential library is poised to transform the neighborhoods that surround the University of Chicago. Construction alone will pour $500 million into 21 acres of Jackson Park, and a University-commissioned study purports that the whole project will create 1,900 permanent jobs and an annual economic impact of $220 million. But what this will mean for residents of the South Side remains to be seen. On May 12, 2015, in a campus-wide e-mail, President Robert Zimmer assured us that “a faculty committee concluded that bringing the presidential library to one of our neighboring South Side communities would benefit the University and those communities.” And just last month, here in The Maroon, Peter Draper and Jake Bittle exhorted us to be skeptical of the library backers’ intentions. Indeed, it’s hard to take Zimmer’s assertion at face value, not only because of the University’s history of intervention in the South Side, but also because the word “community” is fraught with racial and political tension. Since this part of the South Side has a long history of inequality and social strife, it’s worth asking exactly who or what Zimmer is talking about when he says “neighboring South Side communities.” Where are we, the students, amid “the University” and “those communities”?

It’s not always clear what we even mean when we use the word “community.” Around campus, we often say “community” to refer to the people who live around the University but whom we don’t see as part of it—even if they are subjected to its policing, attend its charter schools, ride the CTA routes it subsidizes, and rely on its hospital. Susan Sher, a senior advisor to President Zimmer and former Chief of Staff to Michelle Obama, uses the word “community” in this way when she gives perfunctory soundbites like “We look forward to hearing further community input.” That use of the term is often hard to distinguish from cases where “the community” is a euphemism specifically for black South Siders, like in last year’s leaked Alpha Epsilon Pi emails that referred to black people as “community members.” In contrast, sometimes the word is used to describe a small of group of local elites whom University administrators have decided are the legitimate voice of “the community”—like the University’s hand-picked Community Advisory Board for the Obama Presidential Library, which consists mostly of people with titles like “President,” “CEO,” or “President and CEO.”

This ambiguity, underscored by the University’s having led the effort to bring the Obama library to Jackson Park, should give us pause. It’s easy to forget, but the history of UChicago-led development efforts in Hyde Park, Woodlawn, and Washington Park is instructive—and disturbing. As historian and UChicago alum Rick Perlstein reminded us last year in The Baffler, “exercising dominion over wider and wider swaths of Chicago’s South Side has been the U of C’s operating principle since the middle of the twentieth century.” According to Arnold Hirsch’s book, Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago 1940–1960, in 1958, Chicago’s City Council approved an “urban renewal plan” crafted and promoted by the University of Chicago that authorized the clearing of 105.8 acres of land in Hyde Park, which would displace over 4,000 families (Hirsch 161), 60 percent of whom were black (169). In 1997, the University and Bishop Arthur Brazier of Woodlawn’s Apostolic Church of God successfully pressured the CTA to tear down the segment of the Green Line that used to run above 63rd Street from Cottage Grove to Dorchester. Shortly afterward, nearly all of the businesses along 63rd Street closed, vacating lots that remain barren today. More recently, the University has evicted small businesses owned by people of color on 53rd Street, and it has spent over $18 million buying property near the intersection of Garfield Boulevard and King Drive, which led to the shuttering of the area’s only grocery store.

Given this history of discriminatory and destructive “urban renewal,” it’s hard not to wonder if the University’s bid for the Obama Library will similarly “benefit” those communities. Unsurprisingly, residents of the South Side are organizing to ensure that the Obama library actually benefits the people who live in surrounding neighborhoods. A campaign led by Southside Together Organizing for Power (STOP), the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization (KOCO), and the Bronzeville Regional Collective (BRC) is now underway to demand that the Obama Foundation, President Zimmer, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel sign a community benefits agreement (CBA). Such an agreement would, among other things, guarantee that the plan to develop the library will create jobs for working-class people of color, support black-owned businesses, preserve affordable housing, and improve public transportation.  Over 500 people have participated in town hall meetings to produce the specific objectives of the CBA.

Nevertheless, in an astonishing display of historical, political, ethical, and cognitive dissonance, Obama Foundation President Marty Nesbitt opposes a community benefits agreement, yet insists unironically that “this presidential center is for the community.” If the library is to be for “the community,” the community must have the power to determine how the library will affect their lives, in a negotiated, legally-binding agreement. The University, the City, and the Obama Foundation cannot be expected to cede this power voluntarily—so people are going to have to organize to claim it.

Winning concessions from behemoths like the University and the city is always a tall order, and our neighbors deserve our support. That’s why students are organizing, too: The Prayer and Action Collective (PAC), a group of UChicago students, works in solidarity with the CBA coalition. After all, too rarely do we students discuss “the community” as including ourselves. But when students listen to and speak up for our neighbors, change is possible. 

Recent history proves as much. For instance, UChicago students supported residents of public housing who were fighting displacement when the Grove Parc public housing project was facing foreclosure. More recently, with support from student allies, young black organizers from organizations now leading the CBA coalition successfully pushed the UChicago Medical Center to build an adult Level I trauma center. These victories demonstrate what can be accomplished when we students broaden our understanding of “community” to include ourselves and begin to live and work in community with our neighbors.

William Thomas is a fourth-year in the College majoring in mathematics.