When Bronwyn Nichols Lodato began pushing to prevent a portion of Chicago’s Midway Plaisance from being developed into a parking garage by the Obama Foundation, she never expected to be criticized as anti-black.
After all, she is an African-American woman who has lived in Hyde Park for more than a decade and is sensitive to both the city’s racial tensions and the needs of her neighbors.
“All I wanted to do was make sure my kids could play with no garage in their park,” she said. “I have three young children and we live in a condo and the Midway is our yard. My story is simply, how can we keep the park so our kids could play there?”
But soon after taking up her campaign, Lodato, who believes the South Side deserves what she calls “jewels” of open space, found herself under fire by people who believed that the garage would foster business in the area. Some accused her of siding with her well-off white neighbors and taking a stance that hurts the struggling communities around hers. The criticism stung. “As a black person, speaking my truth about preserving green space, (I was) told that’s not the most important thing to focus on,” Lodato said.
The Obama Foundation’s plans to build the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park have sparked a complicated, and at times emotional, conversation about race, class, segregation, privilege and power on the South Side.
The conversation has raised delicate and fragile issues: who gets a voice in the discussion, who gets heard, who gets action, and how the history of racial and class segregation shapes expectations.
There are those who see the development as an opportunity for longtime homeowners to finally get investment and an increase in property values.
Others worry that rising rents will push out poor African-Americans. They fear development will cater to elite, highly educated blacks while working-class families lose access to lakefront communities. Residents who are pushing for a community benefits agreement (CBA) — a contract guaran-
teeing property tax freezes and jobs — have been told they should find entrepreneurial ways to benefit from the coming attraction.
Meanwhile, white Hyde Park residents have been accused of being silent about displacement, affordable housing and unemployment — while using their voices to save birds, butterflies and nature sanctuaries, or to object to longer commute times. And when black residents have voiced their desire to preserve park and green space, they have been told that with all the inequities African-Americans have to deal with, parkland should be the least of their worries.
In some ways, it’s the collision of issues facing the entire city, but playing out dramatically in four neighborhoods: Hyde Park, Washington Park, South Shore and Woodlawn. The center will cost more than $300 million to build and is expected to bring hundreds of jobs and visitors that could ultimately transform the South Side. Yet what that will mean varies among the different constituencies that share the neighborhood.
“It’s complicated to get your arms around,” said Lodato, who said she is now struggling to advocate her position while being sensitive to her neighbors’ needs and concerns.
She’s a property owner who for years has led a community organization that protects local parks — which points to her privilege, because she has the time to be engaged, she said. At the same time, she has a history of community service in the African-American community and is a working mother who wants to provide a certain lifestyle for her children. She wants the Obama center — but didn’t expect the process would open so many wounds.
“It’s complicated and it’s hard. But this is all our baggage,” she said. “We need to be talking about race. We need to talk about class differences. We need to also take it upon ourselves to elevate the conversation … and figure out how to align ourselves with the ethos of what this community has long stood for.”
As community groups host meetings, send emails and create listservs to discuss the development, many have struggled to grapple with all of the issues at play. There have been name-calling and hurt feelings. Residents have broken into cliques.
The loaded language and accusations prompted Juanita Irizarry of Friends of the Parks to send out an email pleading that race not become a central issue in discussions about the center.
“Increasingly folks who are in favor of the Obama center have stood up at meetings and sent out emails saying anyone who disagrees or asks questions — they must be white, they must not care about black people and they must not care about economic development on the South Side,” said Irizarry, who is Hispanic. “It’s not neatly broken down by black and white or neatly broken down by class. To make it all about race is inappropriate — that’s not what Obama stood for. There needs to be more nuance.”
From the beginning, Friends of the Parks opposed placing the center in Jackson Park and wanted it to be located on private property near Washington Park. The group was criticized as outsiders trying to tell residents how their park space should be used. While the group became an ally in the push for a community benefits agreement, it still could not escape attacks for questioning a development that some think will benefit black children and families.
“We care about gentrification — we talk about it on our Facebook page,” Irizarry said. “The claim should not be made that anybody who opposes the Obama center in the park does not care about black people.”
But while Irizarry wants to be cautious about raising race, Louise McCurry believes it’s the elephant in the room shaping opinions about the development in Jackson Park. But no one wants to speak honestly about it, she said.
“You only need to go to the public meetings and you can see — the folks who say, ‘Don’t bring the Obama center’ or ‘Put it somewhere else’ or ‘Don’t bring a new golf course’ — well, they share the same racial heritage and class levels,” said McCurry, who is white and is a fierce advocate for the center.
“For a long time, the crime and poverty was held past the Midway and across Washington Park, and some people want to keep it like that,” she said. “Now, there are people who will scream and shout that that’s not true because it’s painful to admit that there is racism and classist attitudes here.”
McCurry, who lives in Hyde Park and also supports redevelopment of the golf course, believes the developments would provide jobs, job training, a place for lower-income children to play and for families across racial lines to gather.
“These additions to the park will create opportunities for everybody,” she said. “My focus has been on what is good for our children. Either our kids can go to jail, or they can learn skills and get scholarships and go to college.”
Haroon Garel isn’t so sure the center will bring opportunities to people like him. Nearly all of his life, Garel, who is black and identifies as working class, has lived in Woodlawn, in part because his family is there, but also because it was cheap.
But with all the university-related development, the block he lives on has become more expensive, he says. He used to consider it an enclave of proud black families but now it feels more like an extension of the Hyde Park college campus, with permit parking and a sleek coffee shop. His main concerns are affordable rent and a program that could help seniors stay in their apartments.
When the Obama Foundation rejected calls for a community benefits agreement but listened to feedback and changed course on building a parking garage, Garel felt bruised. The action affirmed the wealthy while dismissing the poor, he said.
“We have white people who live in condos — as soon as they spoke up about a parking garage, there were corrections and adjustments made immediately,” he said. “With the CBA push, the foundation won’t hear us. Our alderman won’t even sit and talk with us.”
Sure, wealthy and white allies have joined in the push for a benefits agreement, Garel said. But their interest was mainly in keeping the community comfortable for them, and they haven’t stood firm on rent control or a property tax freeze. He said many of them don’t show up for protests, carry signs in the blistering cold, donate or write letters of support.
“There are poor black people here and (outsiders) want us out and to move upper-class black people in,” he said. “They’ve got the money to donate to causes and move in circles I can’t.”
Others also said the debate about the parking garage illuminated the fault lines.
It was revealing that it wasn’t until the concrete garage was proposed that a group of faculty and staff at the University of Chicago penned a letter asking that the center be moved, said Eve Ewing, a black author, scholar and educator. While the letter also addressed affordable housing, its timing raised eyebrows.
“There are lots of people … especially the white faculty … who have had no problem with the many ways the university has displaced low-income residents,” she said. “A lot of people were concerned about the Midway, and (landscape architect Frederick Law) Olmsted’s design, and they don’t want to sit in traffic during their commute. It’s really telling that for over a year, lowincome black people have been saying, ‘Help us with jobs, resources for our young people,’ and none of that was listened to.”
Ewing has taken former President Barack Obama to task in her writings for not listening to activists as the development has progressed. Obama is an inspiring and heroic symbol, she said. But his actions with this center haven’t lived up to that.
“In the end, Obama will be fine,” she said. “Jackson Park will be fine. I want my people to be fine too.”
It was that same faculty letter that sparked U. of C. professor Erin J. Adams’ activism, but from the other side. When she saw that hundreds were asking that the foundation relocate the center, she felt baffled and taken aback. Placing the center near Washington Park would isolate it and wouldn’t force communities to come together, she said.
Adams, who is white, has long discussed with South Shore neighbors how the center could bring in new homeowners, stabilizing blocks that are littered with abandoned houses. The center would drive down crime and recharge a community that was hit hard by the foreclosure crisis and has struggled to attract retail outlets.
“The presidential center would be perfectly located in Jackson Park and we are enthusiastic to have it here,” she said. “People are weighing their direct interests and not really appreciating what it means for our community as a whole — particularly the underserved communities.”
The faculty letter drove Adams to action. The center’s detractors have time and resources to campaign and get attention, she said. But there are voices of support missing from the national media coverage.
So Adams wrote her own response, which was published in the university’s student newspaper, The Maroon. And she’s circulating a letter signed by faculty and staff who want the center in Jackson Park, with a long list of reasons to support it. That letter has gotten more than 250 signatures.
“I realized that we needed a counter-narrative that expressed the dimensions that exist with this,” she said. “There are so many sides to this story.”
Tahir Abdullah, a black administrator at the University of Chicago, said viewpoints seem to fit two extremes: Either you’re all in for the Obama center and believe it will improve the lives of the people and communities around it, or you firmly think it will cause headaches and problems. He’s trying to find the middle ground.
“Why would we not want this center besides the idea that it might displace poor, black people?” he said.
Abdullah wants to see the nation’s first black president honored in the community that groomed him. He wants green space and a beautiful, modern park for the residents who live closest to it. He also doesn’t want to get priced out.
“Part of me doesn’t want to be too critical of the Obama center,” he said. At a recent open house, “I saw all these black women contributing to the work and consulting on the project. That is beautiful itself because it gives them an opportunity to show their talent and use their expertise. I want to believe they bring a level of sensitivity about these issues.
“Black people are not a monolith, there is no group think on this,” he added.
Historian and political activist Barbara Ransby lives directly across from the site and finds herself often reflecting on what the campus will mean and how it will transform the South Side. Ransby, who is black, has sided with activists pushing for promises in writing from the foundation, the city and the University of Chicago.
Ultimately, she wants the center to be something she can feel good about.
“This project should not feel like an occupation or another phase of South Side gentrification,” she said. “We have a lot of tourist destinations. The (Obama Presidential Center) should be more than that.”
-In the News Auspicious Living Magazine