Barack and Michelle Obama today kicked off their legacy project in a Chicago lakefront park after a five-year legal battle, fearing the downtown area would destroy a historic park and drive black people out of the neighborhood. .
Construction on the Obama Presidential Center on Lake Michigan, near the Obama family home and where the former president began his political career on Chicago’s South Side, officially began last month.
But the former president and first lady attended a ceremonial earthmoving on Tuesday and were both photographed clearing some ground.
Standing by a backhoe and other heavy equipment, Obama described how the city’s South Side had shaped him, first as a community organizer, then as a husband, father, and elected official. He said the center was a way to give back and hoped it would give an economic boost to the area and inspire a future generation of leaders.
‘We want this center to be more than a static museum or a source of archival research. It won’t just be a collection of campaign memorabilia or Michelle’s ball gowns, although I know everyone will come and see them,” he joked. ‘It won’t just be an exercise in nostalgia or looking back. We want to look ahead.’
But not everyone shared his enthusiasm.
The project has been criticized by local residents, who fear that the construction of the new center will gentrify the area and displace black residents who can no longer afford to live there.
Others opposed the proposed changes to the 540-acre Jackson Park, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places for hosting the World’s Far in 1893.
Former U.S. Presidents Barack Obama and Michelle Obama break ground during the dedication ceremony for the Obama Presidential Center at Jackson Park Jackson Park in Chicago, Illinois, on Tuesday. The project is five years in the making
It was chosen over nearby Washington Park, which was also proposed by the University of Chicago, where Obama taught constitutional law while embarking on a political career that led him to the Illinois Senate, the U.S. Senate, and eventually the White House.
Some neighborhood activists said on Tuesday they already saw rising house prices and would continue to push for more protection in surrounding areas. Environmental advocates have also objected to the location and loss of greenery. During the event, an airplane pulled a banner from the sky that read ‘STOP CUTTING TREES. MOVE OPC.’
The project met opposition from Protect Our Parks, a group that filed a lawsuit against the project in May 2018.
The Obamas were joined at the ceremony by Illinois Governor JB Pritzker (left) and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot (right)
The sprawling campus will include a museum, public library, athletic center, test kitchen and children’s playground
The organization has blown up today’s groundbreaking ceremony.
“The homecoming of the former President and First Lady should be a moment of pride for Chicagoans,” Protect Our Parks tweeted. “However, on this visit, we hope they will mourn the devastation of the initial felling of the mature trees and the destruction of the Women’s Garden in Jackson Park, in addition to the long-term environmental and public health hazards that will arise.
“The effects of this climate crisis have hit black and brown communities hardest, and cutting down hundreds of mature trees will contribute to air quality problems that cause respiratory disease, from asthma to bronchitis. These are exactly the points we are currently raising in our pending lawsuit. Unfortunately, hosting a series of virtual groundbreaking actions won’t change the facts of the case or the long-term negative effects on the community.”
Protect Our Parks, a group that filed a lawsuit against the project in May 2018, crushed today’s groundbreaking ceremony
The center’s initial cost was estimated at $500 million, but documents released by the Obama Foundation last month showed it is now about $830 million. Money is raised through private donations.
The organizers estimate that around 750,000 visitors will come to the center every year.
Work on the Obama Presidential Center is expected to take approximately five years to complete. Currently, the site, which is fenced with green tarpaulins, is peppered by heavy machinery.
Progress has been slowed by lawsuits and a federal review needed because of its location in Jackson Park, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. At the same time, fears of evicting black residents from the area developed into a years-long struggle that resulted in city-approved neighborhood protection, including for affordable housing.
The former president said the center “will not just be an exercise in nostalgia or looking back. We want to look ahead.’
Obama, who did not answer questions at the event, has said over the years that the center will benefit the area with new jobs and that new trees will be planted on campus.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Illinois Governor JB Pritzker and several city councilors were among the few people allowed at the event, which was streamed online to limit crowds amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The presidential center will be located on a portion of Jackson Park named after the nation’s seventh president, Andrew Jackson.
Speaking at the event, Michelle Obama said the investment will help make the neighborhood a global attraction
It will be unique among presidential libraries. Obama’s presidential papers will be available in digital form. The sprawling campus will include a museum, public library, athletic center, test kitchen and children’s playground.
He chose Chicago over several cities, including Honolulu, where he was born and spent his early years.
It’s a part of Chicago that holds special significance for the Obamas. The center is near the University of Chicago, where Obama taught law and where the Obamas married and raised their two daughters, Sasha and Malia. Michelle Obama also grew up on the South Side.
“This city, this neighborhood flows through my veins and defines me in my deepest being,” she said at the event. “This significant investment in the South Side will help make our home neighborhood a destination for the whole world.”
Obama points out proposed features of his eponymous presidential center, which is being built in Jackson Park, in this file photo