And once again, the backroom deals reign supreme

As most people know, Barack Obama is planning his presidential legacy center for the part of Chicago’s south side where he lived and taught law before become a U.S. Senator and then President. This isn’t a presidential library, which will be built in some other, as yet undisclosed location, but a private facility. The City of Chicago has given him 19 acres of land in Jackson Park, for a lease whose terms are secret. The city has decided to close roads that are heavily traveled to accommodate both the Obama Center and a proposed PGA golf course. All of those decisions are also cloaked in secrecy.

As is tiresomely all too often the case in my city, all the deals have been done behind the scenes. I testified before the Chicago Plan [sic]  Commission, but mine was a drowned out voice in a room full of people desperate to believe the city’s promises.

I’m attaching my remarks here. FYI, Rahm Emanuel is Chicago’s mayor, Mike Kelly the superindentent of the Chicago Park District.


Questions Regarding the Plans for the Obama Presidential Center

Sara Paretsky, Hyde Park resident since 1968

It’s fitting that President Obama’s center return to the South Side where he, and especially the former First Lady, lived and worked. I’m delighted the center will be here, but disturbed by the process by which the park district and the city made decisions to dismember Jackson Park, close roads, upend commutes and install a PGA golf course in an area that can’t support one economically.

I’ve lived a few blocks from Jackson Park for fifty years and I’m in the park at three or more days a week. One of my least favorite places is the underpass at 59th Street, which I’ve dubbed, “Lake Rahm Kelly.” This underpass has been flooded and impassable for 46 of the past 52 weeks.

Looking west under Lake Shore Drive at 59th Street

Every time I get there and see I have to retrace my steps, I think, Mayor Emanuel and Superintendent Kelly are two of the people asking us to take their proposed massive disruption of Jackson Park on faith: trust us, they say, as Lucy does to Charlie Brown when she holds the football for him. We can close roads, take away big chunks of Jackson Park to give to a private foundation, eliminate parking, turn Stony Island into a six-lane road, we can do all this without hurting the 2200 children who go to school near Stony Island. We can do all this without causing traffic bottlenecks for the commuters who are already bumper-to-bumper on the roads the city wants to close or narrow. We can bring new commerce to the South Side, we can bring jobs, we can do all this.

You taxpayers don’t need to see data on how we decided on this massive upheaval. You just need to trust us. We can’t keep one lonely underpass free of water, but we can do all this other bigger stuff.

We can build a PGA golf course, which requires intensive use of herbicides and pesticides, without allowing one single molecule of these chemicals into Lake Michigan. We can give almost twenty acres of Jackson Park to the Obama Presidential Center for a lease whose terms we will not reveal to you – how many years, how much rent, how big a burden for maintenance and security will fall on taxpayers. Just trust us.

We’re giving public land to a private center, but this won’t create a precedent for giving public land to other private users such as George Lucas or even Donald Trump. Why won’t it? Because you can trust us.

The Obama Presidential Center similarly demands our trust: for access to the nineteen acres of Jackson Park where they will sit, for economic revitalization of the South Side without a community benefits agreement, for replacement of football, baseball and soccer fields that the OPC and the proposed road changes will displace.

Mayor Emanuel recently said that skeptics like me aren’t ready for the 21st Century.That could be because the Jackson Park plan process looks very much like Chicago politics as they’ve been practiced for one hundred-fifty years.


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May 2022