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.

The Obama Presidential Library, Part One

Discussion about the location of the Obama Presidential Library and Museum has been surfacing in a handful of media sources (and fan sites). Most recently, the Chicago Sun-Times published an article with pre-emptive criticism of an effort to bring the Obama library to the University of Chicago.

“I want to raise the alarm because I think a presidential museum will inevitably become our university’s highest-profile institution on a national basis,” Political Science Professor Charles Lipson said. “It will not be a disinterested, scholarly institution. It will be advancing a political agenda, funded by President Obama’s political allies, including foreign donors who cannot give money to his presidential campaigns.”

The Reagan Library in California attracts conservative speakers and serves as a launching pad for Republican ideas, Lipson said.

We can rather easily dismiss this as nonsense. Not that it is gibberish, but that it is overstating a criticism of presidential libraries in fundamentally meaningless ways. While initial capital funds for presidential libraries are raised privately, and largely from political allies and sympathetic donors, this is not inherently a problem. After the construction of a building, the National Archives and Records Administration populates the staff with non-political, thoroughly professional staff, including academic and public historians, and assumes almost all operational costs. Often there is a private foundation that provides some other funds for programs or researchers, as well. This kind of public-private partnership results in a better, more robust physical plant than the federal government would invest in, so up-front private fundraising makes sense and is a fairly responsible engagement with private interests.* As for programs and scholars, I question Lipson’s familiarity with the work of the presidential museums and libraries. A quick peek at the Gerald Ford Museum programs in 2012, for example, include a speaker on Bob Hope, a speaker on Michigan Football, a speaker on energy issues in the Ford administration, a speaker on the assassination of James Garfield, and three journalists on presidents, the legacy of Vietnam, and the growth of the national security state. The Lyndon Johnson Library and Museum has a similarly mixed though higher profile list: Christopher Buckley, Laura Bush, Stephen Breyer, Sissy Spacek, Bill Moyers, and Mikhail Gorbachev, among others. Are Christopher Buckley and Laura Bush’s political bona fides really in question?

Opposition to an Obama Presidential Library and Museum on political grounds is not a serious criticism. If there is one legitimate criticism that can be made of presidential libraries, it is against the Reagan Museum and Library, which did not employ adequate professional staff and procedures and suffered the theft of thousands (possibly even tens of thousands) of artifacts, according to an audit by the Office of the Inspector General.

The two competitor locales would seem to be the other places with strong associations with Obama, Hawai’i (likely the University of Hawai’i) where the president was born, and Cambridge/Harvard, where he went to law school. Harvard and Boston seem less likely, as there is already the Kennedy museum and library, and Obama will never have the strength of association with Harvard that Kennedy did. Indeed, Chicago is Obama’s Boston — the place he lived and represented as an adult, the city he chose to establish his identity and power base.

*I offer the caveat that in many cases the starchitect designs often leave something to be desired in terms of engagement with surroundings.

See Part 2 on the Obama Presidential Library and Museum.

Historic Aerial Photography – Soil Conservation Service

Next up in blogging the book project is a return to aerial photography.

Background: during the New Deal, agriculture was a key priority, and soil a specific component of that — see, for example, Don Worster’s The Dust Bowl. So the Department of Agriculture set up the Soil Conservation Service which photographically documented land coverage and usage through aerial photography across the country. The whole country.

Right now you’re already probably salivating at the thought of what this could tell historians, and especially urban historians. These still exist and are in storage in the National Archives (off-site I’m told, not at I or II). Some states and areas have been digitized, but it is hit or miss by state. They have been digitized for the State of Illinois, which is great. I came across these before, but the University of Illinois has actually done one better and made this a better, more accessible resource by making the interface and file management simpler. Find the county within Illinois, then use the schematic index to find the image. You can easily download the individual images. Here’s one.

Foregoing the cumbersome MrSID viewer can make these seem less accessible, but you can pull several images together on your own if you have Photoshop (access) or maybe Photosynth. Basically, take the image and trim off any black border with the crop tool — this is just an artifact of the film sheet in the holder from the 30s. Find all the images you want and do this with all of them. Then, using the Photomerge tool in Photoshop, select all of the images that are contiguous and run it. It takes a little while (5 to 10 minutes) and some decent computing power, but Photoshop pulls these together (and does the minor necessary warping of any images to make them match automatically) and puts out a composite image. So from the above, with about twenty-four images, you can get this:

The above is the area where Argonne National Laboratory is now. The small town at the bottom is Lemont, IL. Route 66 was just two lanes in this area and cut diagonally from lower left to upper right. The body of water is the Michigan and Illinois Canal. A good bit of the immediate area is now forest preserve, but there has also been much development, including I-55 and I-355, which would both be on-screen here, as well as Bolingbrook and places like Naperville, a little farther to the north. Either way, building these composite images from such a great resource is a wonderful way to get a sense of spatial change from the late 1930s.

Happy hunting!

Holdout Oriented Design

I’m going to have an article coming out in the Journal of Planning History, part of an issue on postwar university planning and urban renewal. My contribution is about the University of Chicago and comes from my dissertation research. The nature of the piece meant that I could not include some of the most interesting parts, particularly related to building design, so I’m providing it here for public consumption.

The University of Chicago was worried about neighborhood racial transition in the 1950s and set upon an area management strategy led by Julian Levi, a lawyer and planner, through the South East Chicago Commission, and Lawrence Kimpton, the UC president. In the late 1950s Kimpton began to contact metro Chicago education institutions and tried to interest them in moving to Hyde Park in order to spur redevelopment and clear out residential blocks (examples include Barat College, McCormick Theological Seminary, and the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago). The Illinois Synod of the Lutherans agreed to form the LSTC and locate it in Hyde Park in order to be close to and share resources with the divinity school at the University of Chicago. The university owned several parcels on a block on E. 55th and sold them to the LSTC. However, a group of local residents, weary of the university’s major urban renewal efforts, created an organized opposition. They stopped other owners on the block from selling to the UC/LSTC team and LSTC leaders (a business officer named Frank Zimmerman) decided to give up the block in favor of one to the west, where UC also owned several parcels.

UC and LSTC started over in assembling land on the block (between Greenwood and University on E. 55th) and again found opposition, egged on by owners on the next block. In one instance, LSTC and UC hired the wife of a UC grad student to report on tenant meetings, and in another the university tried to buy up shares in a cooperative in order to outvote holdout owners in cooperative board decisions (unsuccessfully). After 5 years of real estate wrangling, LSTC owned all but one building on the block and directed their architecture firm, Perkins + Will, to design a building around the holdout. The LSTC released the plan in 1962.

Image from the Chicago Maroon

The owners were sufficiently spooked by the prospect of being surrounded by the theology school and its parking lot that they agreed to trade their building for a UC-owned building a few blocks away in Hyde Park. However, the Perkins + Will design remains to this day, rotated 90 degrees from its originally proposed site plan.

Image from Google Earth

In the end, UC got its wish and both blocks were redeveloped. Though they initially declined Chicago’s invitation to move to Hyde Park, the McCormick Theological Seminary subsequently relocated from Lincoln Park to Hyde Park, where its building closes the “C” of the LSTC building.

University of Chicago Sit-In, 1962

I thought it worth re-visiting this find from a while back at the request of Angus Johnston.

In my dissertation, “Building the Ivory Tower: Campus Planning, University Development, and the Politics of Urban Space,” I research the development of American universities over the course of the 20th century, using the built environment as a lens for examining urban politics, student life, and academic culture in the process of urbanization. In short, I argue that universities are integral to urbanization, in contrast to previous scholarship that characterizes them as inherently suburban or anti-urban.

In the process of researching one of my cases, the University of Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s, I came across an interesting student sit-in during January of 1962. Students in a chapter of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) realized that the university had bought up a large number of private apartment buildings in Hyde Park and hired a real estate management company to steer and segregate tenants as part of a larger neighborhood management process to insulate the university from the expanding Black Belt (Arnold Hirsch touches on this in a chapter of Making the Second Ghetto). After some paired applicant testing to establish discrimination, CORE arranged a sit-in (pdf) at the UofC administration building and the real estate management company offices that lasted for two weeks. I was surprised to find out how lines of support and opposition were drawn. It turns out one of the leaders of CORE was Bernie Sanders, an undergrad from New York who had transferred to Chicago for his degree (he mentions this in his political autobiography, Outsider in the House). Students were split on the issue. The faculty was largely opposed to the students’ action, preferring discussion and research on the topic of segregation and housing. And there were some other surprising discoveries I won’t go into here.

One of the items I found in the archive was this image of the sit-in, including Bernie Sanders (standing). Since I am a big supporter of the Senator, and am in DC on a research fellowship, I got two prints of the image and went down to his office on Capitol Hill. I left them with his staff with an explanatory note and a request for a signature on one (the other for him to keep in his papers if he wanted). Today I went and picked this up — his staff reported he was pleased with my gift.

Thanks for the signature, Senator Sanders. I defend my dissertation May 4th at the University of Michigan.


In returning this blog to matters academic, I offer a draft of the introduction to my dissertation. It is for information and entertainment, and not for citation without the permission of the author.

Universities are places of optimism. For much of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century, Americans have grafted their individual and collective dreams onto campus communities and the project of higher education. Social mobility, public health advancements, regional economic development, Cold War technological triumph, and racial integration and equalization—all of these were goals given to or embraced by the nation’s colleges and universities in addition to educating each succeeding generation in intellectual and professional pursuits. In so many of these endeavors, universities achieved measures of success that higher education has come to stand in for the American promise of progress and opportunity.
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Hyde Park Progress

As part of the research for my dissertation, I have been looking at a variety of planning and real estate activities undertaken by the University of Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s. Among many memorable instances, one stands out to illustrate how the postwar university had amassed a great deal of political power that it leveraged at the national level to facilitate urban renewal. In preparation for a major “slum clearance” effort, the university thought they might receive federal money under recent housing legislation. Julian Levi, the director of the South East Chicago Commission and Lawrence Kimpton, the UofC chancellor, called on one of the university’s trustees, Inland Steel executive Clarence Randall, who was serving as an economic development advisor to President Eisenhower. Levi and Kimpton passed word through Randall that they would like to speak with administration leaders about what federal funds could do for their community and 10 days later they were sitting with Eisenhower in the Oval Office. They received a planning grant of 198,000 dollars from the Housing and Home Finance Agency (predecessor to HUD) and $15,000,000 for land acquisition and administrative costs for the Hyde Park A&B projects (about 120 million in 2008 dollars). Those political connections are a part of the history of higher education that is almost totally ignored by scholars in education and in urban history.

You might note all over Hyde Park there are renewed cries for urban renewal and development. Recently it caught my eye that current vice-chair of the University of Chicago trustees, Valerie Jarrett, was just named a senior advisor within the White House. I wonder how long until UofC president Zimmer taps his connections to the Obama administration for South East Chicago-specific urban aid?

(Just a note, one of the contributors to the Hyde Park Progress blog is Peter E. Rossi, son of Peter H. Rossi, the late sociologist who co-wrote The Politics of Urban Renewal on the 1958 urban renewal plan, one of the university’s next phases of activities after the slum clearance projects.)

Surprises in the Archive

Researching university histories and campus planning I frequently come across pretty significant surprises in the archives. There was the one about Arthur Miller and Charles Walgreen. There was another where a prominent historian expressed support for limited segregation. Now, as I was preparing for a presentation of some of my research at the Urban History Association conference, I was searching for images of a student sit-in at the University of Chicago in 1962. I found a few, along with another tidbit in this image. One of the members of the steering committee for the sit-in was the student standing at the left of this image, talking — U.S. Senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders.

See Sanders’ NYT Magazine profile.

Laird Bell Law Quad

Yet another article on “what was Barack Obama like when he taught at the UChicago law school?” This time it’s from the New York Times rather than the Tribune or Sun-Times.

There’s a back story to the building that houses the law school, which I’ve dug up for my dissertation.

The University of Chicago was facing a demographic wave in the 1950s that saw black residents move into formerly white South Side neighborhoods from the Black Belt in unprecedented numbers. The university feared that it would lose its prestige by losing its ability to attract top students and faculty. Thus, it created the South East Chicago Commission and its director, Julian Levi, developed a whole range of urban renewal strategies that held off that wave and served as a template for other urban universities.

At one point Levi developed federal housing legislation that provided the university with political leverage over then-Mayor Richard J. Daley. UC had identified land south of the Midway Plaisance for campus expansion and wanted the city to condemn the land and sell it to the university. When the university spent money on renewal activities, it would trigger federal money that would flow to the city, enriching the Daley machine, which was out of urban renewal money in 1960. The process sparked opposition from the Temporary Woodlawn Organization, organized by Saul Alinsky and Nicholas Von Hoffman.

The University of Chicago Law School building, designed by Eero Saarinen, is on that strip of land, a contested, symbolic and physical barrier between the main campus to the north and Woodlawn to the south.

(Image from UChicago Special Collections)

Saul Alinsky and the South Side of Chicago

You know I think my research is the most important work in the history of the world. Why? Exhibit A: Two degrees of separation to the U.S. presidential frontrunners.

In my current chapter on the University of Chicago’s campus planning, I investigate the U-C’s urban renewal projects in Hyde Park and Woodlawn. Basically, the university worked to remove blacks and working class whites through urban renewal projects, campus expansion and redevelopment. Alinsky worked with groups in both neighborhoods to organize and oppose the university. Hillary Clinton, a Chicago suburbanite, wrote her senior thesis at Wellesley on Alinsky and his general model of community organization. In fact, he even offered her a job. Barack Obama, you might recall, worked as a community organizer in the late 80s on the South Side of Chicago in Roseland and Altgeld Gardens. Guess who trained the people who trained Obama?. Saul Alinsky. (Obama still has a house in Kenwood, the neighborhood immediately north of Hyde Park).

EDIT: NPR segment from May.