Concerns About the Obama Library Are Overblown

By Erin J. Adams

Dear Editor, 

I write in response to the letter signed by over 100 University of Chicago faculty stating their opposition to the current plans of the Obama Presidential Library. I would like to provide a contrasting perspective that I believe is shared more broadly at the University both by the faculty and the staff and represents my optimism for what the Library means for us and our diverse community.  

I am a tenured professor at the University of Chicago and I live in the Jackson Park Highlands, a small historic district in the South Shore neighborhood, where I moved after living in Hyde Park for 10 years. Weather permitting, I have walked my dog and two-year-old son through the South Shore neighborhood daily, giving me the opportunity to meet and engage with members of my community. What these walks have taught me is that while South Shore has its struggles, the vast majority of the people in this community are kind, engaging and hard-working. It has also reinforced in me a gratitude for all the advantages I have in my life that some in this community do not have: a secure job to support my family, a warm home to live in, and a car to drive myself, son and dog to work in when it is single digit temps outside. I am a single mother and even with all of these advantages it is hard, so I can’t imagine navigating this experience with less, yet I see young mothers in my community doing just that every day. So, what does the Library mean for these people in South Shore? Perhaps hope that in the future they and their children will have resources to better their lives.  

The mission of the Obama Foundation/Library, while being a private entity, is to “inspire and empower people to change their world.” It seeks to provide hope and resources, or frankly just a place to play and enrich our lives while learning about President and First Lady Obama and what their legacy represents. We cannot lose sight of the importance of this. To me, this library represents a space that I can enjoy with my son, within walking distance from my home and place of work, where we can engage with the wonderfully diverse community in which we live. The Foundation has laid out plans that are a parent’s dream, in a location that will expand our access to Jackson Park by eliminating Cornell Drive. I drive Cornell to work every day. It is a six-lane, curving highway where people routinely drive, without penalty, 50–60 miles an hour, 20–30 mph over the posted speed limit. Crossing this expressway as a pedestrian is life-threatening if not impossible. I would gladly sacrifice minutes of my commute for the transformation this would bring to Jackson Park, making it much more accessible to people from the surrounding communities by bike, foot, public transportation, or even by car. Closing Cornell also provides a net gain in acreage for Jackson Park. From what I understand, Olmsted’s vision of the park is that it should be an urban space to be used not by a subset, but by all the people of the community. The Obama Library’s mission is entirely consistent with this. 

The location of the Library in Jackson Park is even more important for the University of Chicago, a university where the faculty are overwhelmingly white but which is surrounded by neighborhoods with very different socio-economic and racial demographics. This library represents a very important bridge to these communities, and supporting it will provide obvious benefits to our efforts to engage and recruit. We constantly strive to attract a diverse pool of faculty, staff, and students, so suggesting that the library be moved to a different, more distant location is in direct opposition to our goal as a University to be involved in, recruit from, and help raise up our surrounding communities. Hyde Park is a neighborhood that has great pride in its integrated diversity, and I would think its members would embrace the idea of the library being so close. 

I’ve heard many times concerns about the use of “taxpayer dollars” to fund a private entity’s interests. I would agree if this were a Walmart or Amazon warehouse being proposed, but it is not. The Foundation and Library are non-profits with the sole purpose of serving the diverse community, in particular that of the South Side. Taxpayer dollars are routinely spent to invest in other parts of Chicago, why not the South Side? Why not here, where it is desperately needed?  

While the letter writers and other groups have raised issues that I am sure genuinely resonate with their constituents, the Obama Foundation has been responsive to many of these concerns and has revised its plans accordingly. Arguments that the location of the library will not stimulate adequate economic growth are surprising; there are many locations along Stony Island and in the Woodlawn neighborhood that are perfectly situated to benefit from the Library. In South Shore, there is hope that the interest the library brings might even help recruit a grocery store and continue to expand to 71st Street, a formerly bustling commercial area with great potential. I encourage those who have not driven south of the Midway to give it a try, you will see for yourself both the need and the potential of these communities. I hope that by doing so, some people with doubts may decide that the library, and what it represents, eclipses the additional concerns they may have. 

Finally, I encourage those that support the Obama Foundation and Library not to be complacent. Attend the public forums, speak about what this means to you, your family, and your community. Please don’t let the library go the way of the Lucas Museum; that would be a devastating blow to our community and would serve only to further divide us. 

—Erin J. Adams, Joseph Regenstein Professor in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology