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The South Side Is Turning Against Obama

In one of “The Dark Knight”‘s most memorable scenes, disgraced Gotham City district attorney Harvey Dent proclaims that “you either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

Former President Barack Obama can probably empathize with those words right about now. As Politico Magazine reports, Obama’s building of his presidential library and community center has elicited a backlash from activists in Woodlawn – the South Side neighborhood where the project is being built, and where Obama once worked as a community organizer.

That’s because neighborhood residents, who are worried about the center’s potential to attract a wave of gentrifiers to their poor, predominantly black neighborhood, are pushing the non-profit responsible for building the center to agree to more assurances that the project will bring adequate economic benefits to the region to offset the potential negative impact of gentrification.


Of course, Obama has already agreed to staff the center with residents from the neighborhood, but activists are pushing for an arrangement called a “community benefit agreement”, which would force cash-strapped Chicago to freeze property taxes, and would also provide guarantees of low-income housing to stop residents from being pushed out by newcomers. 

Politico leads its piece with a colorful anecdote about a confrontation between Jeanette Taylor, a community activist, and Obama, who attended a community meeting via video link.

As she entered the hotel ballroom, Taylor expected to interrogate a member of the foundation’s staff. Instead, she found herself face to face with Obama himself, appearing by video conference from Washington.

“The library is a great idea, but what about a community benefits agreement?” Taylor asked, referring to a contract between a developer and community organizations that requires investments in, or hiring from, a neighborhood where a project is built. “The first time investment comes to black communities, the first to get kicked out is low-income and working-class people. Why wouldn’t you sign a CBA to protect us?”

Measured as always, Obama began by telling Taylor, “I was a community organizer.” Then he said, “I know the neighborhood. I know that the minute you start saying, ‘Well, we’re thinking about signing something that will determine who’s getting jobs and contracts and this and that’ … next thing I know, I’ve got 20 organizations coming out of the woodwork.”

The answer infuriated Taylor, who pays $1,000 a month for the Woodlawn apartment she shares with her mother and two children, and is worried that the Obama Center’s cachet will drive up neighborhood rents. Months later, she is still furious at the former president.

“He got a lot of nerve saying that,” Taylor told me. “He forgotten who he is. He forgot the community got him where he is.”

As the piece explains, a coalition of more than a dozen local groups have attracted considerable support for their campaign to force the Obama library to offer assurances that will protect locals from the negative impacts of gentrification, which are inevitably borne by a community’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens.

Since 2016, more than a dozen local groups – neighborhood organizations, labor unions and tenants’ rights activists – have come together to form the Obama Library South Side Community Benefits Coalition, which is pushing the library to account for local needs. At the University of Chicago, where Obama once taught at the law school, more than 100 faculty members signed a letter in January supporting the demands of local organizers. “There are concerns that the Obama Center as currently planned will not provide the promised development or economic benefits to the neighborhoods,” the letter reads. “It looks to many neighbors that the only new jobs created will be as staff to the Obama Center.”

The CBA being sought by the activists would go a long way toward protecting the community from an economic invasion.

The contract that community organizers are demanding—the “community benefits agreement”—would require the city to freeze property taxes within a 2-mile radius of the Obama Center and guarantee “a significant guaranteed set-aside of new housing for low-income housing in the area surrounding” the center. It would also require the foundation to establish a trust fund for nearby public schools and small businesses, and mandate that 80 percent of library construction jobs go to South Side residents.

According to several experts quoted by Politico, asking the project to come with a CBA isn’t an altogether unreasonable or unprecedented request.

Developers frequently sign CBAs to build neighborhood goodwill that in turn helps them win permits from local governments, says Virginia Parks, a CBA expert who teaches urban planning at the University of California-Irvine and formerly taught at the University of Chicago. Some well-known examples include the Staples Center in Los Angeles, which devoted $1 million to parks and agreed to pay a living wage for 70 percent of its jobs; and Columbia University, which built a $30 million public school and $20 million in affordable housing in exchange for expanding into West Harlem.

“[CBAs] evolved initially because communities couldn’t get traction within the public arena,” Parks said. “The organizing effort put pressure on the city. Elected officials would say, ‘If I’m going to approve this, I’m going to need you to work out some agreement with these people, who are my voters.’

For what it’s worth, Obama and the foundation responsible for overseeing construction of the center say they’ve addressed local organizers’ concerns. The center will include a 235-foot tower, a Chicago Public Library branch and a campus on 19.3 acres of parkland. In short, it is a “community benefit” in and of itself.

David Simas, the foundation’s CEO and Obama’s former political director in the White House, pointed out in an interview that “this is not a private project. The model doesn’t fit.” Negotiating with community organizations, foundation officials argue, will just slow down construction of a project that will only benefit the south side economically.

Furthermore, an economic impact study commissioned by the foundation projected that the center would create 5,000 construction jobs and 2,500 permanent jobs on the campus and in the surrounding area after it opens in 2022. Some community activists agree, saying the Lakeside Alliance contract adequately addresses activists’ concerns about minority hiring.

Meanwhile, activists have begun lobbying Chicago aldermen to pass an ordinance that would mandate a CBA for the project. Several of the activists who spoke with Politico agreed that their campaign to hold Obama’s foundation accountable is exactly the kind of project Obama himself would’ve worked on 30 years ago when he was still a community organizer.

But that was then.

“Of course, he would have,” Taylor said. “But now he’s part of the establishment.”