Presidential libraries are usually welcomed with much fanfare and celebration. Always a major undertaking, presidential centers offer the promise of increased tourism, money, and jobs, as well as great prestige for the city chosen to host the project.
However, building a presidential library is a time-consuming and expensive undertaking, and the taxpayers are often asked to bear some of the financial burden. Along with the pomp and circumstance of welcoming the Obama Center, local residents have also been asked to sacrifice several acres of treasured parkland for the complex.
At present, under the auspices of the National Archives of the United States, there are 14 official presidential libraries. They celebrate the presidencies of Herbert Hoover, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, William J. Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.
However, Barack Obama’s Presidential Center, which is still in the planning stages, has been met with controversy and lawsuits, the latest of which was filed on Monday, May 14, 2018, when Protect Our Parks Inc. asked a federal court to stop the Obama Center from being built in Chicago’s Jackson Park.
The lawsuit seeks an injunction against the Chicago Park District and other city agencies to prevent them from approving the transfer of land in Jackson Park to the Obama Foundation. As reported in an article by Fox News, the lawsuit alleges the land transfer is “a short con shell game.”
“Defendants have chosen to deal with it in a classic Chicago political way, known as a short con shell game, a corrupt scheme to deceive and seemingly legitimize an illegal land grab, one that will endure for centuries to come, regardless of future changing public park needs and increasingly consequential environmental conditions.”
“The City and Park District clearly realize and fully understand that this established law precludes the Park District from arbitrarily transferring possession, use and control of this dedicated ‘open, clear and free’ public parkland in Jackson Park to a private nongovernmental … entity’s self-determined use.”
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, once Obama’s White House Chief of Staff, blasted the lawsuit while insisting it would bring much-needed improvements to Chicago’s South Side. However, opponents of the project were upset by reports that the Obama Center would no longer host the actual documents from President Obama’s presidential archive, which led to accusations of an “institutional bait and switch.”
Because of the change in plans for the documents, opponents of the project claim the Obama Center is not a true presidential library. Instead, the actual paper documents will be stored in another location, and the Obama Center will only offer digital records.
As mentioned in an article in the Chicago Tribune, the mayor’s office pushed back against the lawsuit.
“The Obama Presidential Center is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to invest hundreds of millions of dollars that will create good jobs on the South Side, bring our communities together and honor the legacy of Chicago’s favorite son and daughter. While some choose to stand in the way of progress for the South Side, we are focused on making progress in every community in Chicago.”
Prior to the current lawsuit, more than 100 professors from the University of Chicago fired off a letter in January 2018 disputing the mayor’s claims that the project would substantially improve the South Side area. A few weeks later, the Chicago Tribune reported that the project would cost taxpayers an estimated $175 million to modernize the streets and construct underpasses. Opponents of the project claim the Obama Center also places an additional financial burden on the community and question whether it will bring any benefits to local residents.
In an article in Politico titled “Meet the Community Organizers Fighting Against … Barack Obama,” Jeanette Taylor, the education director of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, was concerned about the apparent change in former-President Obama’s attitude. In his early days as a young Chicago politician, Barack Obama fought for local residents against developers with deep pockets and an eye on profits.
As she stated in the article, Ms. Taylor wondered if Obama, as a community organizer, would have opposed the current proposal for the Obama Center.
“Of course, he would have. But now he’s part of the establishment.”