Matt McGill played his first organized basketball game in the field house at Washington Park on Chicago’s South Side, near where President Barack Obama’s future presidential library and museum will be hosted. That was more than 40 years ago. The 52-year-old native black South Sider and WVON, Chicago, morning talk-radio personality said many lifelong residents would have undoubtedly been crushed had the Obamas chosen another one of the president’s stomping grounds in New York City or Hawaii for the facility.
“The South Side of Chicago takes a lot of pride in President Obama and first lady [Michelle] Obama,” McGill said of the first couple who spent more than a decade raising their family there before moving to the White House. “At the end of the day, we see it as an honor to have a presidential library in our community. And more importantly, it’s the only place that it could be or should be.”
The Barack Obama Foundation announced Tuesday it will open the presidential center in Michelle Obama’s childhood community, which also hosts the University of Chicago where the commander in chief once taught law. As some residents expressed excitement, many are also cautiously optimistic the library will deliver what the notoriously tough and violence-plagued South Side desperately needs: an economic jolt that brings jobs and resources without the potentially devastating side effect of gentrification. Even with a world class university as a neighbor, South Side residents don’t reap the benefits other cities do, leaving some to wonder if the President Barack Obama Center will make a difference at all.
“I think people have mixed feelings for the most part,” McGill said. “People in the neighborhood are ready for prosperity. But it’s up to the Obama foundation, businesses and community activists to make sure that the presidential library has the impact that President Obama wants it to have.”
There are 13 presidential centers built or run by former presidents’ foundations and administered by the National Archives, from coast to coast. The economic benefits from presidential libraries vary widely depending on a number of factors, including their locations, said James Lide, vice president of historical research firm History Associates Inc., which has consulted on the libraries for Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.
“Certainly, museum planners are increasingly sophisticated in thinking about these projects as not just a standing museum by itself, but as a part of a larger commercial hub in the community that surrounds it,” Lide said in a phone interview Tuesday. “If it’s done right and intelligently, these kinds of projects can be enormously successful. If it’s not done right, they can be a lot less successful, too.”
The University of Chicago estimated the project could bring $220 million in economic activity to the city of Chicago and create nearly 2,000 permanent jobs. The center would generate millions of dollars in annual economic growth, drawing 40 new restaurants and retail stores to the community, according to a project proposal.
“This is a historic day for the city of Chicago,” Mayor Rahm Emmanuel said during a press conference Tuesday. The presidential library, museum and foundation activity space will be “groundbreaking” in its economic and educational value for residents of Chicago and an estimated 800,000 annual visitors, said Emmanuel, Obama’s former White House chief of staff.
The neighborhoods adjacent to the proposed physical location have been slow to recover from the housing crisis and global economic downturn in the last decade that worsened the pockets of boarded up homes and deserted store fronts in Chicago’s once bustling South Side metropolis.
The median household income for the South Side neighborhoods of Woodlawn, Englewood and Washington Park was $25,775 in 2013, just half of the median income in the state of Illinois, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Nearly 40 percent of residents live below the poverty line, double the rate throughout Illinois. The average rent on the South Side ranges from $980 to $1,985 for one- and two-bedroom apartments. The median home value was $185,100, which was about the same as the median price in Illinois.
While crime in the neighborhood has been on a downward trend for the last decade, the South Side has been considered one of the most deadly areas for African-Americans in the U.S. At-risk youths have come to rely on community centers for alternatives to gang violence and restlessness that come with being reared in urban communities that suffer from economic blight, said Ereatha McCullough, director of operations at the K.L.E.O. Community Family Life Center, a nonprofit organization for youth and community development on the South Side.
But McCollough said concentrating on the potentially negative side of the library coming to the South Side is not worth focusing on. “I don’t really worry about [gentrification],” McCullough said, adding the jobs the presidential library could bring to the area could easily employ the more than 300 youth already served by a city-run summer jobs program. “This can only enhance with what we already have. I believe they will be drawn to it because it’s named for the first African-American president. It will give them something visual, to remind them that they can become something in their lives.”
Local businesses and other institutions near the proposed presidential library are expecting to benefit from having the Obamas as neighbors. Gentrification will only happen if the community fails to hold the Obamas accountable to their promise of economic revitalization for South Siders, said Bob Blackwell, the CEO and president of the DuSable Museum of African-American History.
“There are obviously some cautionary tales,” said Blackwell, whose museum is at East 57th Place and South Cottage Grove Avenue in Washington Park, less than a mile for the proposed site of the Obama presidential library. “If we sit on our hands and thumbs, the presidential library may suck all of the oxygen out of the air. But that’s our responsibility -- to make sure we’re doing our jobs.”