(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Barack Obama got his start in politics as a community organizer in Chicago. So when the Obama Foundation chose the South Side neighborhood of Woodlawn as the site of a new presidential center, he might reasonably have expected a warm welcome.
Instead, the project has faced persistent controversy, illustrating how the legacy of racism can stand in the way of even desirable change.
The Obama Presidential Center is supposed to transform 19.5 acres of lakefront in Jackson Park, to the east of residential Woodlawn, into a valuable amenity. It would include a new branch of the Chicago Public Library, complete with a roof garden; a space for sledding and outdoor movies; an athletic center with basketball court; and, of course, a museum devoted to the nation’s first Black president and first lady, who once called the South Side home. It promises to create 2,500 permanent jobs and bring hundreds of thousands of visitors to the area every year.
The foundation chose Woodlawn intentionally. The working-class, predominantly Black neighborhood has been starved of investment for decades, despite what would appear to be myriad advantages. It’s well located, just south of the eclectic and lively Hyde Park neighborhood, the University of Chicago (with its medical center) and the Museum of Science and Industry. The Frederick Law Olmsted-designed Jackson Park, which once hosted a World’s Fair (in 1893) and is on the National Register of Historic Places, offers sweeping views of the Loop, which can be reached quickly by excellent public transit.
Yet the people of Woodlawn have greeted the project warily. Their stated concern is that it will raise property values and rents, displacing the neighborhood’s longtime residents. In a role reversal from Obama’s organizing days, the foundation has ended up across the negotiating table from community representatives, who are seeking commitments to set aside jobs, ensure affordable housing, protect Black-owned businesses and invest in local schools.
On the surface, this might seem like the kind of gentrification that has played out in other cities, where stratospheric housing prices and rents place severe stress on households across the income spectrum. Chicago, however, is not one of those cities. True, it has its share of hot neighborhoods brimming with vibrancy and activity, and the high housing prices to match. But there’s ample reason to believe that gentrification won’t happen in Woodlawn, just as it hasn’t happened before.
What’s holding Woodlawn back? One issue is White avoidance, the sequel to the White flight that helped segregate much of America in the first place. When a neighborhood has a high enough percentage of Black residents, White people tend to stay away. This has economic consequences, because White households are wealthier – about 1.2 million (42%) of the non-Black households in Chicago earned more than $100,000 in 2018, compared with just 108,000 (18%) of the Black households, according to the Census Bureau. Developers, retailers and all the elements of a thriving local economy naturally follow the money.
Make no mistake: The people of Woodlawn recognize the benefits that a project like the Obama center could bring. But the long experience of White avoidance has a deep psychological effect. People in predominantly Black neighborhoods tend to assume that any big development coming to their community is “not meant for us.” In a sense, the historical narrative of displacement and gentrification is hard at work, even if its actual dynamics are not.
The resistance to the Obama center illustrates that conventional narratives of what’s happening in cities have their limits. The problems of the past are still with us. As local officials and developers seek a revitalization model that will work for both long-time residents and newcomers, this is a reality they’ll have to reckon with.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Pete Saunders is the community and economic development director for the village of Richton Park, Illinois, and an urban planning consultant. He is also the editor and publisher of the Corner Side Yard, a blog focused on public policy in America's Rust Belt cities.
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