On January 14, I approached the field house in Washington Park, the 150-year-old jewel of Chicago’s archipelago of green spaces, for the second of two public meetings to discuss the University of Chicago’s bid to host Barack Obama’s presidential library. The university was proposing either this site, at the eastern edge of Chicago’s South Side ghetto, a half mile northwest of the Hyde Park campus, or one at Jackson Park, a mile east on the lakefront, an equally choice expanse developed for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. For months, the question of whether Columbia University—the president’s undergraduate institution—would swoop in and snatch the glittering prize from the benevolent hands of the foundation administering the Obama library had dominated the local political news; the story was second only to the surprising news that mayor Rahm Emanuel might just lose his fight for reelection. A few weeks later, in evident panic at either contingency, the mayor promised he would “move heaven and earth to ensure that the Obama Presidential Library makes its home on Chicago’s South or West Side.” The stakes were high, and the field house was packed. There was overflow from the overflow room.
Outside, there were pockets of black men from a library-boosting group called Washington Park United sporting T-shirts reading “Bring It On Home” and passing out handbills that looked like they had been printed in someone’s garage, with a logo knocking off the Wu-Tang Clan. They urged South Siders to “SUPPORT THIS ONCE IN A LIFETIME OPPORTUNITY” as “a beacon of possibilities for Chicago.”
Also outside were nurses handing out flyers noting that their employer, the University of Chicago Medical Center, the second largest hospital in Chicago, made $1.4 billion in patient-care revenue every year while devoting only 1.3 percent of that to charity, for which they earned $58.6 million in tax breaks as a “charity hospital.” They observed that the medical center’s registered nurses had written more than three hundred reports to management detailing unsafe staffing conditions in 2014 alone; that the hospital ranks below state and national averages in many measures of staffing adequacy; and that when their union, National Nurses United, made a formal request for improvements, they were told, “You’re asking for pie in the sky.”
In trying to compel the medical center’s management to act in line with its charitable mandate, the nurses brought up the same issue that has galvanized student protesters, especially since the hospital moved into a new $700 million building two years ago: the closing of its adult trauma center in 1988 and its refusal to build another, forcing gunshot victims to be transported eight miles for treatment at what is now the nearest emergency care facility. (Following sit-ins in 2013, the university’s private police force even planted an undercover operative inside the student organizers’ ranks.) “Draining Tax Dollars. Unsafe Staffing. Trauma Patients Dying . . . and they want to take acres of parkland from the South Side for a presidential library? CALL ON THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO TO BE A GOOD NEIGHBOR.”
The same sentiment could be heard a day earlier on Chicago’s public radio station from a man interviewed in the depressed neighborhood surrounding Washington Park. “Any encroachment on the park means more encroachment on the park,” he said, and then added, with venom, “It’s going to be connected with the University of Chicago. And they’re going to continue to encroach.”
I made my way inside the gym, stationed myself beside the rostrum crowded with television news cameras—and was quite nearly tackled by Jeremy Manier, the U of C’s executive director of news and public affairs, spouting talking points: “economic development”; “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity”; “long Chicago tradition of museums in public parks.” An order of battle pitting a number of potentially combustible forces against one another had already become evident. On one side: a genuine grassroots desire to enshrine the legacy of America’s first black president in the city where his political career began; a megalomaniac mayor; and the desperate hopes of a devastated black neighborhood exploited by a great university’s passion to become an even greater one. On the other side: the same corps of dispossessed black Chicagoans and liberal white neighborhood activists who’ve been fighting off the imperial private university as a land-grabber and community-traducer for going on sixty years.
The meeting was called to order, and it soon became clear which side was going to win.
Our Records, Their Futures
The notion of a “presidential library” was invented by Franklin D. Roosevelt, who donated a handsome building beside his childhood home in Hyde Park, New York, as well as the entire documentary record of his presidency, to the people of the United States in 1941. Roosevelt proposed that Americans must “learn from the past that they can gain in judgment in creating their own future.” His idealism was eventually written into the books of law, in a series of statutes culminating in the post-Watergate Presidential Records Act of 1978. Presidents who wish to honor FDR’s precedent and build libraries of their own must do so via funds raised by private foundations on land not owned by the federal government, and then must turn over those buildings to the people, to be operated by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). They must also establish an endowment to ensure the library’s future fiscal health, relieving the taxpayers of the potential burden of their upkeep.
Like so many things Obamian, when it comes to transparency, fantasies of reform turn to ashes in our mouths.
That was the original idea; it has worked out very badly. In an eye-opening new book called The Last Campaign: How Presidents Rewrite History, Run for Posterity, and Enshrine Their Legacies, Anthony Clark, a whistle-blowing former staffer for the toothless congressional committee charged with NARA’s oversight, observes: “We once held the office of president, as well as its occupant, in high regard. As we have lowered our opinions of both, presidential libraries, consequently, have grown larger and more powerful—and, not incidentally, less truthful.” In seven cases—Reagan, Ford, Nixon, Eisenhower, Truman, Roosevelt, and Hoover—their role is Pharaonic: the ex-presidents are buried there.
Roosevelt had dedicated a small area at his library for a sort of museum to display some of his favorite artifacts and gifts. From Roosevelt’s death onward, however, presidential museums of increasing hubris and size would become the tail that wagged the dog. Herbert Hoover built a second library “after seeing his successors create ever-larger public memorials to themselves”; LBJ insisted that the basement and sub-basement of his alabaster temple on the University of Texas campus be labeled “Floor 1” and “Floor 2” so he could claim it was a ten- rather than eight-story structure. “Even though the Archives operates the museums,” Clark notes, “the agency doesn’t really have a say in the exhibits’ content, scope, or appearance. The president’s supporters design, create, and mostly pay for them, while enjoying the government’s stamp of approval, and the (free, to them) services of government archivists, curators, exhibit specialists, technicians, and others.”
The foundations set up to build them, meanwhile, did not die but came to enjoy everlasting life, as “political organizations whose goals . . . often conflict with NARA’s legislative requirements.” They raise lots of funds—but they are not required to devote a penny of that horde to serve the institutions’ statutory raison d’être of preserving and disseminating public records. Indeed, they often do the opposite. When I learned that General Electric had donated the full run of General Electric Theater, the TV show the fortieth president hosted between 1953 and 1962, I asked the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library when I might be able to review the series for my own research. Never, I was told, because they were donated for the exclusive use of the Reagan museum.
About the abuses of history sponsored by those publicly subsidized museums, meanwhile, perhaps the less said the better. At Reagan’s, for instance, visitors often pronounce themselves moved by a “quotation” on the wall attributed to V. I. Lenin: “It does not matter if three-fourths of the human race perished, the important thing is that the remaining one-fourth be Communist.” Lenin must have had quite an imagination; he died some twenty years before the invention of atomic warfare.
But let’s not single out the Great Fabricator. The Ex-Presidents Club is reportedly a tight-knit, affectionate bunch. At the dedication of George W. Bush’s library in Dallas, Texas, in 2013, a winking Bill Clinton said, “I told President Obama that this was the latest, grandest example of the eternal struggle of former presidents to rewrite history.” Just so: grander and grander and grander. As Clark wrote in Salon in 2013, “the first Bush library cost fifty percent more than the Reagan before it, and Bill Clinton’s was built at twice the cost of Bush’s. While the total cost to build the George W. Bush Library”—the cost of its construction was reportedly $250 million—“wasn’t quite twice that for the Clinton, the Bush Foundation raised five hundred million dollars. That’s more than all twelve earlier libraries combined.”
There’s no reason to expect that Barack Obama’s foundation won’t continue the trend. The chairman of its four-member board is First Friend Martin Nesbitt, who as campaign treasurer in 2008 helped raise $750 million for Obama’s first presidential bid, and who for the second scrounged up $1.1 billion; another member is the CEO of Pritzker Realty Group. There’s no reason to expect, either, that Obama’s library won’t, like those before it, become a partisan political clubhouse, deftly skirting the requirements of the 1939 Hatch Act that no politics take place on federal turf. This donor-friendly sleight of hand typically involves the designation of ever larger spaces—like the giant atrium at the Reagan Library where Republican candidates now hold primary debates every four years with a decommissioned Air Force One as a backdrop—as “private property.” Never mind that these strategic outposts of private-sector ownership are, in fact, subsidized by you and me.
In the library baksheesh set-up, the directors of the presidential foundations can exploit the other-than-public status of the facilities to rent out their conference spaces for a profit, with none of that money required to go back to the government, and get a cut of admission fees (including for special exhibits on subjects like wine, custom motorcycles, and, at Ronald Reagan’s, “Treasures of the Walt Disney Archives,” which at twelve thousand square feet was the precise size of the entire permanent exhibit space at the FDR library in New York’s Hyde Park). Then, should the shrine someday become a white elephant (attendance at Lyndon Johnson’s towering edifice in Austin plummeted from 650,000 in 1976 to 200,000 in 2003; I shudder to think how few people will be visiting George H.W. Bush’s in College Station, Texas, in 2042), “the federal government will have to step in and take responsibility for these structures. No law, regulation, or policy currently in effect—nor any seriously being contemplated—takes this into account.”
Clark’s most stunning discovery was that when Nixon began fantasizing about building an Albert Speer–like memorial to himself on a gorgeous four-thousand-acre tract of oceanfront property abutting a Marine base in California, he set about laying the groundwork for the project in exactly the sort of corrupt, imperial-presidential manner that compelled him to resign the Oval Office in the first place. Nixon got around the ban on using federal land for presidential libraries by creating an entire gargantuan federal bureaucracy, the Federal Property Review Board, that turned over six hundred unrelated spits of “underutilized” federal land around the country to state governments in order to cover his tracks.
We don’t, of course, expect Barack Obama to descend to such Nixonian depths. But the tragedy of our presidential library system is that it is quite nearly structurally Nixonian. The Advisory Committee on Presidential Libraries is almost unique among federal advisory committees in evading sunshine laws requiring that membership be balanced in terms of political affiliation. The foundations “work closely together to make sure their rights and prerogatives are protected.” (Bipartisanship!) When Clark traveled to NARA’s facility in College Park, Maryland, he discovered that every single record concerning the construction of the libraries after 1964 was simply missing from the shelves. And when he finally was able to interview NARA’s assistant archivist for presidential libraries, she lied to him, claiming NARA had no role in the site-selection process. (He publishes a document in his book proving that they do.)
Then there is NARA’s ghastly record when it comes to honoring these institutions’ actual statutory reason for existing. The Reagan Library “lost” thousands of pages of records concerning John Roberts’s time at the Justice Department, “‘finding’ them once he was confirmed by the Senate.” Don Wilson, the national archivist appointed by Ronald Reagan (on the recommendation of Dick Cheney), was so bad that the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, which usually superintends the library system with about as much vigilance as the Intelligence Committee reins in the CIA, was forced in 1992 to conclude he had “failed to exercise care and diligence in fulfilling his responsibilities.” So why in the world did George H.W. Bush name Wilson executive director of his library and foundation? Could it be because with only hours left in the Bush I term, Wilson signed a secret document granting Bush physical custody of the White House email backup tapes? (A federal judge would later strike this document down as “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, and contrary to law,” but by then Wilson had already begun his new job.)
Presidential libraries suffer backlogs of unprocessed Freedom of Information Act requests stretching back for as many as a dozen years. No wonder the transparency activists at the Center for Effective Government gave the National Archives and Records Administration—the National Archives and Records Administration!—an “F” in the center’s 2014 Access to Information Scorecard. NARA defends this whole rotten system with an absurdly anachronistic and specious argument, writes Clark: “Presidential libraries need to continue to be spread out around the country so that more people may access the records”—“cover,” he says, “to secure continuing taxpayer subsidies for the private history at the library museums—since the records aren’t, and won’t be, available.”
Which brings us back to Chicago, and the current presidential aspirant to immortality. Like so many things Obamian, when it comes to transparency, fantasies of reform turn to ashes in our mouths. On the very first day of Barack Obama’s first term, civil libertarians cheered when the new president reversed an executive order removing White House emails from the reach of Freedom of Information Act requests. Then, this year, on March 17, the White House made an announcement: it was removing White House emails from the reach of Freedom of Information Act requests.
It was altogether Nixonian—or Chicagoan, whichever you prefer. As it happened, that same week Mayor Emanuel hosted a “unity breakfast” at which speaker after speaker proclaimed Chicago the only imaginable place for a Barack Obama library. And that was but the prelude to a unanimous March 18 City Council vote removing any remaining municipal legal impediments to turning over park land to the Obama Foundation—nearly, but not quite, the culmination of months of secret efforts by Emanuel’s donor-heavy political establishment to wire the deal.
But first had to come the January 14 meeting in that gym in Washington Park, a key hinge in the hustle.
Examinations: None of the Above
Talk of luring Obama’s library to Chicago began in the wake of his 2012 reelection, with developers and grassroots groups putting out a series of outstanding site proposals. A plan for the University of Illinois’s Chicago campus—abutting the city’s violent, poor, black West Side—was only mentioned politely, as an afterthought. Then, the Obama Foundation squashed it altogether with the dubious rationale that the imminent retirement of UIC’s president would be too disruptive. Then there was the former grounds of U.S. Steel’s South Works mill, which closed in 1992 after a long decline. The symbolism was perfect: a tourist mecca arising from a bramble of rubble, weeds, and mud in the neighborhood where, Obama told Time in 2008, “I found my calling working in a community devastated by steel-plant closings.” A major developer sketched a vision for a library there as an anchor for a comprehensive $4 billion commercial project. That notion, however, was axed unceremoniously last September.
The University of Chicago has figured out a way to get South Siders to cheer on their own dispossession.
Chicago State University, a hardscrabble commuter school also in the neighborhood where Obama began his organizing career, submitted a bid for two locations on its campus; that went nowhere. The president of the Black Metropolis Convention and Tourism Council, representing Chicago’s original black neighborhood, Bronzeville, plumped thirty-seven unused acres already owned by the city just a stone’s throw from the lake. This was the site of the former Michael Reese Hospital; it was also the parcel that mayor Richard M. Daley had hoped to use for the athletes’ village if Chicago had won the 2016 Olympics. The Bronzeville bid was terminated with extreme prejudice in November of 2013: a team hired by the marquee Chicago architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) to “create a framework” for the land issued a report that claimed turning it into a presidential library would cost the city $142 million.
All these proposals checked every box that Obama’s foundation had said needed checking. So what gives?
What they lacked was a certain unspoken qualification that true Chicago political hands knew trumped all the rest: the rejected proposals did not sit within the footprint of where the mighty University of Chicago planned to expand its sphere of control. Ask Jeremy Manier what the U of C’s formal relationship to an Obama library in Jackson or Washington Park would be and he’ll refer you to a “FAQ on Obama Presidential Library” on his news site, whose 1,800 words attest to the seriousness with which the university takes this project. But the site’s section “Role of the University of Chicago” elicits a telling question. Boil down its incoherently evasive bureaucratic language, and the answer is: the university has no formal role. And yet its investment in the political campaign to get the institution sited on its campus’s far periphery has plainly been colossal. Why? No one who knows the history of Rockefeller’s university would even bother to ask.
Exercising dominion over wider and wider swaths of Chicago’s South Side has been the U of C’s operating principle since the middle of the twentieth century, when the disruption brought on by black migration to the North nearly threatened to shut the university down. In the 1950s and 1960s, they called it urban renewal—“Negro removal,” in the argot of critics. Back then, the strategy turned in part on denuding the area of all possible charm and attraction, so effectively that Jane Jacobs made Hyde Park a crucial exhibit in her classic jeremiad The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Most often, the plans involved scarring the landscape with expressways—those great concrete monoliths that so handily wall off undesirable populations from desirable ones, and simultaneously channel the unwashed masses over but never through your precious patch of sanitized urban keep. Indeed, the original Hyde Park master plan drawn by Saarinen and Associates in 1954 called for a leg of interstate freeway to be built from the lakefront to Cottage Grove Avenue. Times change, however, and now the preferred ideology of our municipal imperialists, as Baffler readers know, is “vibrancy.” And vibrancy is a logic of attraction.
Head Games of the Elites
The university first established its beachhead in the Washington Park neighborhood in March 2013, commandeering an abandoned 1920s terra cotta structure on a once-forlorn corner a block west of the park’s commuter rail track to serve as an “Arts Incubator,” run by Theaster Gates, a gifted African American sculptor, urban planner, and cultural P. T. Barnum whom the New Yorker has appropriately dubbed “The Real-Estate Artist.” Almost simultaneously, the university recruited one of the biggest guns in Obamaland, former Michelle Obama chief of staff Susan Sher, to head its library campaign. One of Chicago’s most serious power players, Sher served before her White House stint as general counsel for the University of Chicago Medical Center, where she hired Michelle Obama to run community relations (a job that may well have involved, say, neutralizing neighborhood activists enraged that the hospital refused to maintain a trauma center). Before that, Sher was chief lawyer at City Hall, where she recommended that Mayor Daley’s deputy chief of staff Valerie Jarrett hire the future Mrs. Obama. And wayyyy before that, she pursued a PhD in art history at the University of Chicago. “I realized I wasn’t a scholar,” she told the Chicago Tribune, “and wanted to do something really practical”—which in her case meant becoming a corporate lawyer at Mayer Brown, the firm that represented White Sox owner Charles Comiskey in the Black Sox Scandal. She also became pals with Marty Nesbitt, a fellow parent at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools (a Hyde Park version of clubbing together at Balliol), whose board she chaired. In April, as the Obamas approached their final decision about the library, Sher attended the White House seder (according to publicly available records, she brought the brisket). Of such wheels within wheels is Chicago’s modern-day political machine engineered. “Another longtime friend,” the Chicago Tribune observed, “is Kelly Welsh, the general counsel at the Commerce Department under Chicagoan Penny Pritzker.”
Exercising dominion over wider and wider swaths of Chicago’s South Side has been the U of C’s operating principle since the middle of the twentieth century.
But Chicago is not yet completely an oligarchy. To make these gears turn, the powers that be have to lubricate past that pesky irritant: public dissent. So last May, the university brought forth the numbers to flush it away. A study from the Anderson Economic Group estimated that the “annual net economic impact of the Obama Library operations and visitor spending” would be $221.9 million, including revenue from forty projected new businesses and a whopping 1,900 “net new jobs.”
Do you see the problem? I knew you would; you’re smarter than the Chicago media. Yes: This directly contradicts the study published only six months earlier estimating that an Obama library built on the former hospital site would cost the city $142 million. Meanwhile, the study concluded that this same tract would generate $208 million in “net proceeds” for the city if they built a casino there—which happens to be one of Mayor Emanuel’s fondest political dreams for the Michael Reese site. For the Obama library, on the other hand, city fathers seem to have already made the determination, in cahoots with its flagship private university: Jackson or Washington Park was the place. Last winter, the city submitted two formal bids to the Obama Foundation: one in either of the two parks, and the other yoked to the UIC campus. The UIC bid, as noted above, crumbled under such a flimsy premise that it’s easy to suspect it was never a serious proposal in the first place. Think of President Underwood on House of Cards running an ally as a dummy candidate “against” him to bolster his own bid. Crain’s Chicago Business explained that if tracts of Jackson and Washington Park were given up to the Obamaites, “in return, the Park District would get $1 and five as-yet-unidentified acres elsewhere in the city.”
But soon, trouble was brewing. As the Associated Press reported on December 30, the U of C was now “scrambling to address major concerns raised by the foundation” that the university could not “prove it could secure the land” from the Chicago Park District, which controlled it. Chicagoans are persnickity about their parks. The provision that the lakefront remain “forever open, free, and clear,” as per Daniel Burnham’s beloved 1909 Plan of Chicago, is the sort of thing the city drills into the heads of schoolchildren. Mayor Daley’s Haussmannian dream of building an Olympic stadium in Washington Park was one of the reasons his popularity declined so precipitously before his decision not to run for reelection in 2011. Likewise, Mayor Emanuel’s free and easy way with public green space has contributed to his conspicuous unpopularity. To take just a pair of egregious examples, he intends to lease a portion of the lakefront to the creator of Star Wars for a planned “Lucas Museum of Narrative Art” for a dollar a year, and his Park District once rented out, for a reported $125,000, Hyde Park’s entire beloved Promontory Point (which, conveniently for security purposes, has as its single point of access a narrow tunnel) to George Lucas and his betrothed, a Chicago investment banker, for a wedding featuring a football-field-sized tent and a performance by Prince. (I emailed a Park District representative to ask whether I might rent the same park for my own wedding but never heard back; but then I, unlike Lucas and his associates, have not donated tens of thousands of dollars to Mayor Emanuel’s campaigns.) The advocacy group Friends of the Parks has filed suit against the Lucas Museum land grab. Fears soon emerged that the next community-activist lawsuit would be aimed at the U of C.
The AP reminded readers that Columbia University had already “secured attractive real estate that could house the library.” It also noted Emanuel’s insistence that he would accept only “potential sites that ensure park land remains under public control and that the surrounding communities have a say in the process.” And in a particularly nice touch, the AP reporter observed that because the president of the Park District’s board, which is appointed by the mayor, is married to Obama commerce secretary Penny Pritzker, he had had to recuse himself. The wheels within wheels threatened to grind to a halt. A public relations campaign of awesome scale was needed.
And so, on to Washington Park in January, where the basketball hoops were festooned with prom-like streamers and where the program had not yet begun before the language began sounding eerily monotonous. “Support this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” read the handbill with the Wu-Tang Clan logo. “A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the South Side,” read the snazzy, logo-branded “Top 10 Things to Know About the Effort to Bring the Obama Presidential Library to the South Side” handout included in the press packet Jeremy Manier pressed into my hand. That was shortly before he told me the library was . . . yes, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the South Side. “Presidential libraries,” Anthony Clark writes, “have a lot in common with presidential campaigns.” Indeed.
Results Are Guaranteed!
At the microphone was a partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Phil Enquist. (“He passionately believes that the world’s explosive growth of cities must be managed by humanely bold and holistically sustainable strategies at the national, regional, and urban scales, and that human habitat design will be the alpha design discipline of the 21st century,” the press packet informed me.) The screen cycled through a series of heart-warming images: the beaming First Family on election day in 2008 in Grant Park, surrounded by “Yes We Can!” banners; the president throwing out the first pitch at a White Sox game; the First Lady reading The Cat in the Hat to a rapt class of multicultural moppets. Enquist clicked his first slide, marked “NEIGHBORHOOD PARTNER,” depicting the entire combined 1,055-acre footprint of Jackson and Washington Park, with the patches reserved for the library—so teeny-tiny, really!—in outline. “Washington Park and Jackson Parks are important, historic Olmsted parks,” he said. “But they are not static. Our commitment to these historic parks does not require that we hold them unchanged in perpetuity.” He clicked through an argument so visually compelling—the South Side transforming itself before your eyes into mystic rainbow visions of yes-we-can-itude—that you could almost forget it contradicted itself from paragraph to paragraph. (Politics, Karl Rove likes to say, is television with the sound off.) That is to say, he pointed out again and again how small this facility would be, compared to the gaping expanse of green surrounding it, with the building itself covering only two acres. Then, tacitly addressing the best argument of those opposing the use of park land—that the university already owns a five-acre vacant lot across the street from the proposed Washington Park site—he said the project was inconceivable unless it was sufficiently large, by which he meant at least twenty acres.
To make these gears turn, the powers that be have to lubricate past that pesky irritant: public dissent.
(An enthusiastic neighborhood man pressed a business card into my hand. “Fight filth the old fashioned way . . . . c-l-e-a-n u-p . . . . from the inside out. Join the war on filth and fear. Clean up socially, economically, & spiritually. Guaranteed results!” The moment was so authentically black working-class South Side, like a blues lounge with cherry-red vinyl booths, that in my paranoia I wondered if the U of C hired him for the performance.)
Enquist from SOM compared the modesty of what he had in mind with LBJ’s elephantine thirty-acre site, Carter’s thirty-five acres, and the Clinton Library’s whopping thirty-eight. He noted that the land the University of Chicago already owned across the street—he drew out his pronunciation dramatically, so no one would miss the symbolism: Martin. Luther. King. Jr. Drive—would be part of the Washington Park plan, too, lessening the footprint in the park. (But—another contradiction—he elsewhere stressed the shortage of contiguous, vacant available land.)
He pointed to all the “educational assets” in the neighborhood perimeter that were desperate for the educational enrichment a presidential library could offer, conveniently circled on a map (which, yet more conveniently, did not show the ones Rahm Emanuel had closed). He referred to something called a “cultural ribbon.” He repeated the commitment that any plan be “park positive,” whatever that means. And finally, the president and first lady were shown gazing soulfully at the Chicago skyline to the north, an image like a socialist realist painting.
A few more scheduled speakers followed. The first was an eighth grader from the Washington Park Chicago International Charter School, who spun out her theory about how young black men with nothing to do would flock to the Obama library rather than commit crimes. (“Good home training,” someone near me said.) A charter school advocate: “This is the civil rights movement of our time.” Local aldermen, spooling out win-win arguments.
And then came Cassandra Francis of Friends of the Parks, slipping some unwelcome fecal matter into the punchbowl. She said, “This is setting a precedent for this city and for the nation for the transfer of public park land into private land”—even if the keepers of the Obama shrine proved good stewards, placing irreplaceable land “out of the hands or the benefit of the public into the things that would not necessarily prioritize public use” was a dangerous slippery slope. She would be thrilled to have an Obama library in Chicago, she stipulated; everyone would be. But why bend the law and good policy to get it, especially since this wasn’t even necessary? If a truly “urban” complex was what they had in mind, wouldn’t “an urban solution to the first true urban presidential library . . . be a smaller site that would be part of a higher density neighborhood and would be integrated into the street grid”?
Then it was time for public comment, and it was almost as if Francis had not uttered a word. An officer of the YWCA made the library’s arrival sound like the miracle of the loaves and fishes. “I don’t think of it as taking away park space,” said a man in a Bring It On Home T-shirt. The CEO of the Washington Park Chamber of Commerce scolded those who dared say otherwise as spoilers, taking food out of the mouths of South Side babes: “Don’t black lives matter?” Torrey Barrett, executive director of the KLEO Community Family Life Center, agreed. He declared that if Barack Obama loved black men—“Imma keep it real!”—he would bring it on home: “It would be a slap in the face if any city other than Chicago receives this endorsement. It’s time the president shows the support to us that we’ve shown to him since before he got in office.” Barrett was one of thirty-five “South Side Residents” who cosigned an open letter included in the press packet urging the mayor to hasten the park transfer as “a crucial opportunity to strengthen our communities and create 1,900 jobs.” Other signers included David Vitale, identified as chairman of the Urban Partnership Bank—though not, as he also is, president of Rahm Emanuel’s appointed Board of Education.
Robert Blackwell of the DuSable Museum of African American History, another signer, pulled out the big gun: “New York City has the land. New York City has the money. And if we’re not careful, we’re going to be sitting around here and New York City will win this thing. And now my question is, how many of you would be happy if New York City won?”
Demagoguery did not go unchallenged. “I believe you’re being misled, just as the community is being misled,” cried an elderly white woman with a fanny pack, the perfect specimen of the sort of hectoring Hyde Park neighborhood activist whom university flacks have been crossing the street to avoid since the 1950s. “They’ve created an emergency situation to make you think you need to give up park land to get the Obama library on the South Side.” An officer of the Washington Park Conservancy pointed out that trees standing when George Washington was president “would be cut down and replaced with a building.” One of Chicago’s most legendarily irascible community organizers, the Rev. Slim Coleman, pointed out that if the library really was supposed to be some kind of neighborhood charity, it would be sited in the far worse-off West Side.
Fiery Jitu Brown of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, or KOCO—not to be confused with TWO, the Woodlawn Organization, an earlier insurgent formation long ago co-opted into the city power structure—thought like a community organizer. He pointed out all the leverage the people in the room held and that Dyett High School, located within the boundaries of the park, was hanging on by a thread. If the assembled activists wanted to revitalize it, and insure that all the job promises were kept, they should make demands in exchange for their support. He got but a smattering of applause.
An older man reminded the younger ones—public radio station WBEZ pointed out that reaction to the library plans have generally split along generational lines—that “the University of Chicago has historically not been a good neighbor. Colored folks, Negroes, blacks, whatever you may call it, the University of Chicago won’t give you anything. Don’t trust the University of Chicago.”
Which is really the bottom line, isn’t it? Gentrification always poses a paradox: a geographical area might end up revitalized. But inexorably, that means the human beings who happen to live there cannot . . . Oh, hell, I sound like a professor. Much better was the way a woman who announced she’d been trained as a community organizer by Barack Obama put it: “Look out. We gonna be gone.”
It was all futile. A chant trumped logic: “Bring it on home! Bring it on home!” It produced in me that sinking feeling you get in the middle of an election season, in the moment when you know your guy can’t possibly win—when you hear a slogan you just know was devised in some back room, probably with the benefit of gigabytes worth of research reports, certainly focus-grouped. Worse, you hear these carefully massaged word formations bubbling forth sincerely from ordinary people’s mouths as if they had just come up with them on their own.
I was now on the email list of “OPL South Side” and, as a result, the beneficiary of a blizzard of the sort of language the Masters of the Universe hire their flacks to come up with when they’re fixing to fleece someone, all packaged with snazzy graphics of the sort you’d find in your classier corporate annual reports, illustrated with images of joyous black folks in gear bedecked with the “Bring It On Home” logo, a giant Obama-branded “O” framing the Chicago skyline. “Sign the letter of support to bring the Barack Obama Presidential Library to the South Side,” we were invited. “To President Obama and the First Lady: The Obama Presidential Library offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity . . .” Pack—no, “attend”—a Chicago Park District board meeting, we were implored.
On it went: A link introducing the faculty committee that “examined presidential libraries and concluded it would be in the interest of the University to help bring such a project to the South Side.” (In ignoring the inevitable partisan cast of a presidential library, the committee blatantly abrogated a supposedly ironclad university policy, established following the 1960s student uprisings, that the institution not take sides on partisan questions.) “Nearly 80 percent of South Side residents favor using parkland for Obama Presidential Library, poll shows.” (Speaking of partisanship, this poll was commissioned by OPL South Side from “the independent polling firm Anzalone Liszt Grove Research”—the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaign pollsters.) An invitation to “Propose a Collaboration.” This was a particularly on-message intervention: the words “collaboration” and “collaborate” appear almost as often as “historic” and “opportunity” in OPL South Side materials. The email address is “[email protected]”—because it’s all about our ideas. I considered writing in to suggest that the magenta shade in the logo might achieve greater psychographic impact if adjusted to a more muted taupe.
“Take the Quiz. Get the facts.” I obligingly click and find myself on the OPL homepage, where I see a sterling example of the University of Chicago’s Socratic traditions. True or false: “The City of Chicago is proposing to give land to the University of Chicago.” Fear not: “The University of Chicago will not gain land—in fact, it is offering its own private land for this public institution.” And lots of pictures of Barack and Michelle dancing with children. And a video, “South Side Sings to President Obama to ‘Bring it On Home,’” with the president on a visit to Hyde Park Academy in 2013 feelingly intoning, “It is good to be back home.”
And then comes Sam Cooke.
“Baaaaaby, bring it to me!
“Bring your sweet loving.
“Bring it on home to me.”
Of course! That’s where that vaguely familiar phrase comes from. The marketing genius is undeniable. What better way to stir subcortical warmth in the minds of South Siders of a certain age than the sweet, stirring sounds of the greatest R&B singer ever to croon, “the inventor of soul music,” Chicago’s own native son to boot, gone too soon at the age of thirty-three?
“Bring it on home, Barack!” (Two middle-aged ladies, one white, one black—Hyde Park!—crying joyfully into the camera.)
“BRING IT ON HOME!” (A clutch of happy black school kids with a KLEO banner—“Keep loving each other!”—unfurled behind them.)
Then two cuter-than-cute little boys intercut contrapuntally with Sam’s “yeah” (“Yeah!”) and “yeah” (“Yeah!”) and “yeah” (“Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!”)—then a fade to the logo of the Valois Cafeteria, the still-thriving hash-house that, as every respectable Hyde Parker knows, was the only place where an underpaid, ambitious young community organizer in Harold Washington’s 1980s could afford to eat.
“Bring your sweet loving. Bring it on home to me”: Once upon a time, the legendary mid-century U of C president Robert Maynard Hutchins composed a piece of racist doggerel expressing his terror of the dusky hordes threatening to overwhelm his great university. In it, Washington Park makes a cameo:
The Chancellor and the President gazed out across the park,
They laughed like anything to see that things were looking dark.
“Our neighborhood,” the Chancellor said, “Once blossomed like the lily.”
“Just seven coons with seven kids could knock our program silly.”
Hyde Park was not overrun, but the racial animosities from attitudes like these linger still. It’s now clear that what Hutchins and Co. needed in order to successfully hide the sort of collaboration he had in mind was a better theme song. Now, at long last, the university has figured out a way to get the U of C’s surrounding ghettos to cheer on their own dispossession.
The February 11 Park District meeting was duly packed; their vote to abrogate their statutory function to preserve parkland was unanimous. (The Obama Foundation released a statement thanking them: “We appreciate the City of Chicago’s efforts to develop a competitive and robust proposal and the engagement of the community and City Council in an open dialogue about the potential of a future Center.”) The City Council on March 18, exercising the brand of collaboration for which they have become justly famous, voted to turn over parkland to private use by a vote of forty-seven to zero. And on April 23, an otherwise-gridlocked Illinois state senate fast-tracked a bill to ensure legal authority to use parkland for both the library and the Lucas Museum. The Obama Foundation called it a “welcome development.”
On May 12, the Obama Foundation announced that the Obama Presidential Center, to “include the library, museum, as well as office and activity space for the Foundation to inspire and engage citizens here and globally,” was coming to the South Side of Chicago. The University of Chicago’s News Office put out a press release— “Editor’s note: this news story has been translated into Spanish and Chinese”—that used the word “collaboration” seven times. It included a video, scored with soothing music, on the “responsibility to give back,” culminating with the First Couple snuggling on a cream-colored couch, the president thrilling to the decision to “give something back” to the place where he “became a man” and learned to “apply that early idealism,” his wife exulting how “every value, every memory, every important relationship to me exists in Chicago. I consider myself a South Sider.”
The D.C. insider rag Politico reported on the most important work yet to be done—raising the half-billion dollars to build the thing, though Crain’s Chicago Business explained that the fund-raisers were already well on their way, with checks in hand of over $500,000 from department store heir Ian Simmons and his wife, Liesel Pritzker, and precisely $666,666 from hedge fund giant Michael Sacks, most recently in the news when Chicago City Hall evaded open records laws by refusing to release emails about his financial dealings with the city.
Franklin Roosevelt, I’m sure, would be proud.