February 22, 2018

University to Host Symposium on Impact of OPC Plans

The Obama Center's projected location in Jackson Park.

Courtesy of Obama Foundation

National and local experts will discuss the Obama Presidential Center’s impact on Chicago’s South Side at a symposium on March 7 at the University. The symposium will be in Kent Hall, from 6–8 p.m., and will be free and open to the public.  

The symposium was organized as a follow-up to a UChicago faculty letter, which expressed concerns regarding the possible community effects of the current Center plans.  

The event’s website proposes the symposium as an opportunity for experts and community members to discuss the logistical challenges put forth by the current Center plans, such as the allocation of tax dollars, infrastructure changes, environmental impacts, and gentrification concerns.  

The event will consist of a moderated discussion with four panelists followed by a question and answer period open to the public.  

Featured panelists will include president and CEO of the Cultural Landscape Foundation Charles Birnbaum, founder of Blacks in Green and Bronzeville Regional Collective Naomi Davis, founder and principal architect of Michael Sorkin Studio Michael Sorkin, and professor in the Department of Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago Jacqueline Stewart. The panel will be moderated by distinguished professor of African-American studies and gender and women’s studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago Barbara Ransby.  

Panelists will apply their expertise to discuss the historical considerations of park planning and the current environment surrounding South Side parks. Birnbaum has 15 years of experience at the National Park Service Historic Landscape Initiative (HLI) and currently holds a private practice in New York City, with a focus on landscape preservation and urban design. Davis has served on many Chicago area organizations including the Great Lakes Advisory Board, the Obama Library South Side CBA Coalition, the Woodlawn Chamber of Commerce, and the Woodlawn, Washington Park, South Shore Economic Development Organization.   

Organized as a response to the faculty letter—which has over 200 signatures—the symposium will allow experts to offer criticism and advice to further develop Center plans as practical and beneficial for the South Side economy, community, and environment.  

“There are very serious problems with the [Center] plans as they exist. As long as there is still time for change to be considered, we will continue to press for them,” co-author of the faculty letter professor W.J.T. Mitchell said.  

Event organizers say the symposium is not meant to act only as a medium for criticism but also to bring transparency and clarity on the Center plans to community members. “We want the event to deal with both sides of the coin, to educate the public, raise the level of civil discourse, and produce real world change,” Mitchell said. 

Faculty members have emphasized that their current apprehensions about the Center’s plans have not lessened their regard for Barack Obama as a community member, however.  

“[The symposium] will also be a tribute to the historic legacy of our colleague and neighbor, President Obama,” Mitchell said. “Everyone involved with the symposium agrees on one thing: The Center belongs on the South Side, and we are united in respect for President Obama’s historic achievements.”  

Symposium organizers have extended an invitation to the Obama Foundation to attend the event, but according to media representatives from the symposium, Foundation representatives have yet to communicate an intent to accept.  

As the Foundation moves to finalize plans for the Center in the spring, it has scheduled a public meeting on February 27 at McCormick Place to “continue its ongoing community discussion about the design and development of the OPC,” according to a press release.  

The symposium is sponsored by UChicago Urban, the Mellon Sawyer Seminar on Urban Art and Urban Form, the Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation, the Chicago Center for Contemporary Theory, Preservation Chicago, and the scholarly journal Critical Inquiry.  


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