Obamas lead inauguration ceremony at Obama Presidential Center

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Six years after announcing the location of its presidential center, former President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle finally officially opened their $ 830 million facility in Jackson Park on Tuesday, September 28.

It was a historic ceremony that not only marked a new chapter in the couple’s political career, but ushered in a new era of excitement and worry in Chicago’s Woodlawn and South Shore neighborhoods.

Under clear blue skies and cool temperatures, the Obamas, Governor JB Pritzker, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Aldermen Leslie Hairston (5th Ward) and Gregory Mitchell (7th Ward) shoveled the ceremonial soil. (20th Ward Alderman Jeanette Taylor, who is vaccinated, was absent while recovering from COVID-19).

The large facility is expected to polish the Obama legacy and transform the South Side into a popular tourist destination that they hope will inject $ 3.1 billion into the local economy and boost the region’s economic development.

At the ceremony, Zell Wilson, a junior at Hyde Park Academy involved in Black Girls Code and Girls 4 Science, introduced Michelle Obama before she spoke. Trenton Banks, a junior from South Shore High School who plays basketball and running, introduced President Obama.

“The Obama Presidential Center will be the premier institution in the world for the development of civic leaders in all fields, in all disciplines and, yes, across the political spectrum,” said Obama. “A campus, right here on the South Side, where we will train the next generation of leaders not only in government and public service, but also leaders who want to start businesses, run nonprofits and be socially aware. in an effective way. “

A FEW MOMENTS AFTER HIS speech, former President Barack Obama shakes hands with Illinois Governor JB Pritzker as Mayor Lori Lightfoot watches the applause. They then went to the shovels for the inauguration ceremony of the Obama Presidential Center. (Photos by Parthenia Luke)

With the pandemic underway, the potential federal government shutdown, Mayor Lightfoot’s budget woes at City Hall, and days of falling stocks on Wall Street, the Obama Presidential Center dedication ceremony was a positive boost. during a period of gloom and negative news in the city and in the country. With his signature optimism that fueled his rise to the White House as the country’s first black president, Obama’s 18-minute speech aimed to instill hope in residents of the Woodlawn and South Shore neighborhoods, where poverty and divestment remain a concern.

But during his speech, Obama said Jackson Park “is surrounded by vibrant neighborhoods, in a community where the couple believe they can help make a difference.” Obama also noted that as a 23-year-old moving from New York to Chicago, he first walked through the park to his new home after leaving the Chicago Skyway.

“The Obama Presidential Center is our way of repaying some of what this amazing city has given us,” Obama said. “But we are also building the Center because we believe it can speak to some of the central struggles of our time, and we are living in a time of rapid disruption, in technology, in the global economy, in our social arrangements, in our environments.

The ceremony was closed to the public, but more than a hundred people on Stony Island waited outside the entrance throughout the ceremony. Some were supporters who had hoped to get a glimpse of the former president. Others were protesters who remained concerned about the center’s potential to spark gentrification in the area with rising rents and house values.

Before the ceremony began, a small plane hoisted a banner over Jackson Park that read, “Stop cutting the trees. Move the OPC.

Lawsuits, legal battles and federal approvals prolonged the start of construction of the Center. Friends of the Park has lost several lawsuits after trying to prevent construction of the Center in Jackson Park. After much protests, the activists finally won a Community Benefit Agreement ordinance, which includes a $ 7 million Woodlawn loan fund and a 58-unit mixed-income building. But some activists who protested outside the ceremony said the ordinance was not doing enough for affected residents of the community.

“You can cut the ribbon, but don’t cut us,” said Dixon Romeo, a South Shore resident. “It’s our community. We should be able to stay.

Security was tightened along Stony Island, where 15 Chicago police cars sat outside Hyde Park Academy during the ceremony. On the east side of the street were around 10 city sanitation trucks which blocked access to the sidewalk outside the groundbreaking ceremony site.

The Center will perhaps be the only major attraction to be built on the south side in decades. In recent years, new attractions have been built in the city center or on the north side. With divestment in the South Side still a problem, officials hope the Center will become a major source of pride in the region.

The ceremony ended in an hour and began with a short video that highlighted Obama’s roots in Chicago and his vision of cultivating young leadership through its Presidential Center. Another video included a speech by President Joe Biden, who canceled his scheduled visit to Chicago on Wednesday, September 29, due to the budget crisis in Washington, DC

During his speech, Obama said that the construction of the center will attract approximately 750,000 visitors to Woodlawn and strengthen the broader South Side business climate and “preserve and improve everything that makes Jackson Park special.”

The center is slated for completion in 2025. It will include a presidential museum, a forum building with community space, a branch of the Chicago Public Library, and a sports center. The Center will not have a presidential library which would normally include archived documents and archives for the public. Instead, the Obamas decided to scan 30 million unclassified documents for people to view online.

The center will also have surrounding grounds which will include a vegetable garden, reminiscent of Michelle Obama’s vegetable garden in the White House, a toboggan hill, children’s play areas and an open space for community events like farmers’ markets, meetings. family and picnics.

FORMER PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA speaks at the groundbreaking ceremony. (Photo by Erick Johnson)

During her brief speech, Michelle Obama said while she and her husband lived in Chicago, Jackson Park, “for the most part they just didn’t call us,” she said. “It hasn’t always been a place for me. Too often this beautiful park felt like something to cross or bypass to get somewhere else.

“The OPC will be a place where people can find work, where children can learn and grow and envision a bigger life for themselves, where families can walk and cycle or get together in the grass,” where everyone can find calm and beauty and peace and security, ”she said, saying that the opportunities for art, music and museums, outside the Museum of Science and Industry, needed a travels downtown during his childhood on the South Shore.

Mayor Lightfoot said, “The Obama Presidential Center presents an important opportunity to restore social and economic vitality to the south side of our city. This is why I am more than excited to help write history and innovate in this incredible project, which will create a ripple effect of inclusive socio-economic growth for residents of the surrounding community and our entire city. . My team and I are grateful to the many government and community leaders for making this effort possible and we look forward to continuing our work to elevate our historically underserved neighborhoods. “

Governor Pritzker said: “Although this center is presidential-wide, its presence and purpose still reflects the same community-centered vision that has always defined the work of Obamas – and there is no better home port as the community that took the family from the Statehouse to the White House. I am especially proud of our state’s contribution to these efforts – reshaping and improving trails and roads throughout the neighborhood to make the Center an accessible and enjoyable space for all.


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