Obama Presidential Library Part 2

To continue my discussion from Part 1, not only should the Obama Presidential Library and Museum be located in Chicago, it should be affiliated with the University of Chicago. This is not a particularly controversial proposition — many of the libraries since FDR are affiliated with or located near an institution of higher education: FDR with Marist, Kennedy with UMass-Boston, Johnson with Texas, Nixon with CSU Fullerton, Ford with Michigan, Bush I with TAMU, Clinton with Arkansas-Little Rock, and Bush II with SMU.

The Obamas’ relationship with the University is clear and strong, intellectually and institutionally. Efforts to affiliate with a public institution like UIC would be a wonderful gesture at inclusiveness, but it’s not clear they have the capacity to support the institution (though UIC could probably spare some land).

The question of land hangs on any University of Chicago location. The institution is in the middle of a significant redevelopment and expansion effort with new hospital buildings, a new library and more on the way. The logistics and disruptiveness of a location contiguous with the main campus are likely too difficult to overcome, as residential neighborhoods pin down the university on the east and the area between the campus and Washington Park is limited.

The Woodlawn neighborhood makes a great deal of sense and the University of Chicago is in part responsible for its current difficult circumstances. President Obama’s own position with the University of Chicago Law School makes this area even more poignant as a locale for the library and museum.

The Laird Bell Law Quadrangle was conceived of and constructed in the midst of the University of Chicago’s key neighborhood interventions of the 1950s, opening in 1959. As the demographic transformation of the Great Migration reached Hyde Park, the university felt threatened by the incoming population of poor and working class African Americans and by the new class of exploitative landlords who converted grand apartment buildings into cramped kitchenette units. Hoping to insulate themselves from Woodlawn, in particular, the neighborhood south of the Midway Plaisance that saw the greatest growth in black population, university leaders worked to take all of the land between 60th and 61st Street and extend the campus, while they also promoted the construction of a highway that would separate the University of Chicago from the neighborhood. I talk about this a bit in my article on the U of C and in a chapter of my book manuscript.

The university bought up properties that they feared landlords would convert to the rooming houses. In some cases, the U of C neglected the properties and let areas deteriorate in order to facilitate their own redevelopment plans. Uncertainty about the area hung over the neighborhood, so many landlords did not invest in their property, expecting that it would eventually be taken by eminent domain. By walling off the U of C community–the highway effort failed but the institution pursued other measures–wealth and investment was directed to Hyde Park and segregated from the Woodlawn community, intensifying the disparities between the two communities. The university eventually did take control of the mile of land between Washington Park and the Illinois Central rail lines south of the Midway and pursued its own redevelopment projects there.

The Obama library would, necessarily, resonate as another of these interventionist redevelopment projects. Even despite that it could be a spur to economic, social, and intellectual development *for the resident population* in the neighborhood.

First, it must have a design that engages the neighborhood, overcoming the frequent challenges of security, parking, and signature starchitecture. People will come from around the city, the state, the region, the country, and the world to visit the Obama Museum and Library. Many of them will come in their cars, requiring a great deal of parking that could be an obstacle to public engagement. The LBJ museum, even though it is in a pretty big city and is on the edge of a large university campus, is fairly separated and isolated from everyday pedestrian life in Austin. You would either drive to that edge of campus, or you would have a looong walk to get there, even as a student. Same with the Ford Library in Ann Arbor on the University of Michigan’s North Campus (The Ford Museum in Grand Rapids is better placed in this regard.) Same with the JFK Library in Boston — a train will get you about a mile away, then a bus will get you there, but it can be a bit overwhelming, especially if you’re not from Boston or familiar with the T system.

A Sanborn map of the Woodlawn area from 1926.

A location in Woodlawn has the possibility of drawing tourists via public transportation, especially elevated CTA Green line, which terminates at 63rd and Cottage Grove. There is also a Metra regional rail line with a stop on the east edge of Hyde Park that could handle some of this. The use of public transportation by visitors would limit the number of cars and make the parking facilities less sprawling, keeping the whole area more urban and walkable. This is desirable because the point of placing the library in Woodlawn would not be to turn the area into a bourgeois suburban playspace, but to bring an asset and development to the neighborhood without overrunning it. Visitors staying at a hotel in the Loop could take the CTA down for the morning, spend a few hours at the library and either head to Hyde Park for lunch (not well connected to the El) or go back up to the Loop — even if they drove to Chicago there would be no need to drive to the library. The key would be putting the library within about 3 or 4 blocks of a train stop. You could run a shuttle bus to the library, but I favor having tourists do some walking, maybe to buy a coffee or a drink on the way at the shops that would inevitably spring up to serve the library visitors. (No doubt there would be some political and legal wrangling, but even a location at the southwest corner of Washington Park near the DuSable Museum of African American history seems plausible to me.)

View Larger Map

Second, it should have a robust educational outreach program and an archival/museological/historical training program. It’s quite clear that the election of Barack Obama as president has enabled parents and teachers of black children (and minorities of all races and ethnicities) to tell their kids and students that anything is possible for African Americans — even leader of the free world (see Ta-Nehisi Coates for a recent example attesting to this.) That kind of priceless inspiration — from someone in their own city — could have oven more import, be even more directly felt, and have even more of a lasting legacy through a presidential library integrated into the community. Such an institutional commitment would come not just through regular school field trips, but especially at the high school level, to teach students about the process of doing research, of handling (conserved) archival materials, and of creating knowledge about politics and public policy, President Obama, his administration, and race in the 21st century. Such an asset would be unparalleled for an urban school system like Chicago Public Schools and could turn Woodlawn into a more desirable neighborhood for residency. Ironically, it would be something like this that would fulfill the University of Chicago’s long-held desire to promote development and middle-class residence in Woodlawn — not demolition, but, through engagement, a process of market-based demographic succession.

Would this take more staff? Yes. Would it take a different set of priorities in planning for the library and museum? Yes. Would it be a greater planning challenge? Probably not — any presidential library is a significant planning challenge, and it is simply a matter of priorities and values. While it might take more money, President Obama has certainly illustrated his ability to draw on generous donors for his political campaigns — devoting such effort to something that would not only preserve his legacy, but enhance it, seems to me to be a simple question.