By Maya Rhodan
May 17, 2018

Supporters of former President Barack Obama’s proposed presidential library and museum were joined by protesters as a key city commission met Thursday to determine whether to grant approval for construction to begin.

On a patch of sidewalk outside of City Hall, a group in blue T-shirts and pins emblazoned with the Obama Presidential Center logo chanted, “yes we can” and urged drivers to honk in support of the proposed library, while protests nearby called for a formal promise from the city and the foundation that South Siders will not be hurt by the project.

Francis Banks, 77, a resident of Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood, was among the protesters. “We want the library, of course we do,” she said. “But we want people in the community to benefit. I don’t think that’s unreasonable.”

It was a fitting, if ironic, tribute to the former community organizer from Chicago’s South Side, who used his farewell address in his hometown to challenge his supporters to stay involved in organizing in their communities and the country as a whole.

After months of community engagement, the lead up to the commission meeting exposed some of the tensions that have been boiling over as details of the Center have been released. Just this week, a community group filed a federal lawsuit to stop the project from going forward. (A supporter of the project and local developer, who himself drew sharp criticism from people in the crowd, compared the lawsuit to a lynching.)

Support for the Obama Presidential Center is widespread. The Obama Foundation submitted 406 letters and 4,000 postcards from citizens who want the Institution constructed on the South Side. But there are divisions over some key details — including location, the use of parkland, and the economic impact it will have on low income residents. Some community groups are also calling for more transparency from the Obama Foundation, which they say has not been forthcoming about the project.

The Obama Foundation has also projected that the center will have a $3.1 billion impact on the city, $2.1 billion of which they say will go directly to the South Side, arguing that it will bring 700,000 visitors to the city, generate 5,000 jobs during construction and 2,500 jobs during operation.

Kyana Butler, an organizer and resident of the neighborhood adjacent to the park, is among many who are calling for a formal city ordinance that will enshrine community protections before they break ground on the project.

As the morning rolled on, the crowd that gathered outside of city hall piled into elevators and up to the 2nd floor to await entry into the meeting room. The scene in the hall was raucous as members of the crowd hoisted colorful and hand written signs and shouted competing chants. “Yes We Can!” versus “CBA,” which stands for Community Benefits Agreement.

Toward the back of the crowd stood Robert Johnson, a resident of the South Side who lives near the proposed Jackson Park site. Johnson said that while he understood both sides of the crowd, he believes the project will be a good addition to the city’s South Side. “A lot of our youth need to see a landmark like that,” he said.

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