South Side’s next chapter: Obama Presidential Center

In 1893, the Columbian Exposition took over the Hyde Park and Kenwood areas for 6 months. 125 years later the area is again embracing change, but some say it may ruin the delicate social balance of the neighborhoods

Photo provided by DBOX via Obama Foundation
LOOKING FORWARD. An artist’s rendering of the view north along Stony Island Avenue, which the Obama Foundation hopes to realize in 2021 when the Obama library is set to finish construction.

When the World’s Columbian Exposition took over Chicago on May 1, 1893, people from all over the world came together in Jackson Park and along the Midway — just a few blocks from Lab’s campus — sharing cultures and riding the newly-invented Ferris Wheel.

Today, 125 years later, the Obama Presidential Center is planned to be built nearby in Jackson Park. With a futuristic, winding design — including a two-story museum, public plaza, library and athletic center — the Obama Center “will be a living, working campus — an ongoing project where we will shape, together, what it means to be a good citizen in the 21st century,” according to the Obama Foundation website. It will also include a branch of the Chicago Public Library.

Perhaps the OPC will rekindle the world’s fair legacy. But how that legacy should be continued is up for debate.

Louise McCurry, president of the Jackson Park Advisory Council, sees the World’s Fair in a positive light — the beginning of inclusiveness, a precursor to the League of Nations.

“The whole concept simply followed straight through from the 1893 World’s Fair when (landscape architect Frederick Law) Olmsted said this will be a democratic institution, a place where everybody — whether you’re rich or poor, or black or white, or wear funny costumes on your head, or don’t speak the language — are all welcome. And the Obama Foundation is bringing that back again,” she said.

Ms. McCurry sees the legacy of the World’s Fair as bringing people together from all across the world, and from all walks of life. And she sees the Obama Center, which should be completed by 2021, as continuing these positive changes.

Photo provided by the Obama Foundation
PLANNING AHEAD. Official plans for construction of the Obama Presidential Center have been completed. The OPC will be just a few blocks east of the Laboratory Schools campus and parts of the library will be open to all Chicago-area students.

But the legacy of the World’sFair may indicate a different future of Jackson Park.

African-Americans were excluded from many aspects of the exposition, according to “All the World Is Here! The Black Presence at White City” by Christopher Robert Reed, a professor at Roosevelt University. But he also argues that “African-Americans were both visible in their participation and left with feelings of hope and accomplishment,” according to a review from “The International Journal of African Historical Studies.”

African Americans were excluded from skilled jobs, and made up most of the janitorial staff, according to the review.

“There had been a number of African-Americans who played a role, but it wasn’t easy,” Frances Vandervoort, a member of the Jackson Park Advisory Council and volunteer, said. For example, one of George Washington Carver’s paintings was displayed, but wasn’t allowed to appear at the award ceremony.

Similarly to exclusion during the World’s Fair, today’s residents have concerns about gentrification — whether the neighborhoods surrounding the Obama Center will actually benefit from construction, according to Ms. Vandervoort. People are afraid they will be forced from the communities they’ve been in for generations.

“There are groups in Woodlawn and South Shore that have a concern about that,” she said. “That has happened elsewhere in Chicago.”

Ms. Vandervoort said that longtime residents might have to move from northside neighborhoods because a newly-built park, 606 Trail, is increasing property values.

But Ms. McCurry said she’s optimistic. She said the Obama Foundation has worked to address all concerns residents have voiced.

“The Obama Foundation is making sure that anyone who lives in the Woodlawn area around the center will all be able to stay there in subsidized housing,” Ms. McCurry said. “In terms of jobs, the Obama Foundation has a local process of hiring. All the people [who will be] working there are from South Shore, Woodlawn and Hyde Park. There are big hiring meetings going on right now in ward offices, as well as in the South Shore Chamber of Commerce, Hyde Park Chamber of Commerce.”

Ms. McCurry said most complaints are from people not understanding what’s going on — despite the fact that there have been 109 public meetings since the project was introduced.

“A lot of people like to yell and scream without knowing the facts, and the facts are that all the questions about the [Obama Center] have been raised — about gentrification, about hiring, about construction — the Obama Center has addressed head on, and have put safeguards in to make sure that doesn’t happen,” Ms. McCurry said.

Ms. Vandervoort said she is afraid Jackson Park will become “cluttered” — like Millennium Park or Lincoln Park. She’s concerned it will become a place solely for “entertainment,” filled with roller coasters and movie theaters. Parks should provide “amusement,” a diversion.

And, as per Olmsted’s vision, she said, a place to participate in democracy.