Is it wrong to commandeer space intended for public enjoyment to bolster a political legacy? That’s a question US President Barack Obama will soon answer when he and First Lady Michelle Obama announce the location of the future Barack Obama Library and Museum.
Will he choose the site proposed by the University of Chicago on the city’s South Side, a plan that will swallow up 20 acres of either Jackson or Washington parks — both designed in the 1870s by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the same duo behind New York’s Central and Prospect parks? Not only does the university have strong political connections to the presidential couple — Obama once taught in its law school, while the first lady’s former chief-of-staff is now an adviser to its president — but Obama was quoted saying in January, at a Gridiron Club dinner in Washington, “I hope [the library] goes to Chicago.” It is his wife’s hometown, after all, and where the president’s political career began.
It’s not the first time a presidential library has provoked controversy. As noted by the Los Angeles Times, President George H.W. Bush’s library forced a pig farm out of College Station, Texas; President Carter’s library required the building of a highway through a public park in Atlanta, Georgia; and President Clinton’s library in Little Rock also took over public land.
Though the University of Chicago’s plan has been harshly criticized, it’s had the full support of the local government. On Wednesday, the Chicago Tribune reported that City Council has unanimously voted to donate the 20 acres to the library should it win the bid. That follows in the footsteps of the Chicago Park District, the city Planning Commission, and a special joint City Council committee — all which have already endorsed the land transfer.
“Presidential libraries come only once. I don’t think Chicago should miss this unique opportunity educationally, culturally, or economically,” current Chicago mayor and former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said in January. Built and funded by the Obama Foundation, the library would be run by the National Archives and hold the president’s papers and ephemera. “It’s a unique investment wherever they pick, and they’re gonna pick the city of Chicago.”
Other bids for the library’s location come from New York’s Columbia University, the University of Hawaii, and — interestingly enough — the University of Illinois at Chicago. According to the Economist: “Another option for the city is the plan mooted by the University of Illinois. The university is taxpayer funded, poorer and less prestigious than the University of Chicago, and free of close ties to the president. But its proposed site is a 23-acre piece of vacant land in the run-down North Lawndale neighborhood in the west of the city.”
There seems to be a consensus in Chicago that if the library isn’t built on the South Side, it won’t be built in the city at all. The board of the Chicago Parks District said that locating the library on parkland “improves Chicago’s bids.”
Boston Globe columnist Renée Loth noted that the University of Chicago already owns 11 acres of land across the street from the park site, but it doesn’t think it’s impressive enough (despite the fact the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston occupies a mere 10 acres). The university’s vice president of civic engagement has said that the school does not own a big enough block of land for the planned 32-acre Obama library.
But Charles Birnbaum, president of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, says the idea that the library has to be built on the South Side is a straw argument. “Can you imagine plonking the Obama library into the middle of Central Park?” he told the Economist. “[Washington Park] is unrivaled in America and we are pretending it is the only available site for the library.” For that matter, Chicago’s South Side has long been notoriously poor, and it’s hard to imagine the government proposing to take as much historic parkland away from a wealthier area — despite all the grand talk about the library drawing investment to the neighborhood.
Razing public parkland to erect a massive homage to one president’s career seems incredibly undemocratic. And yet, the people of Chicago had plenty of time to speak up, and it seems that not enough of them did. Perhaps they were all distracted by another high-profile and contentious museum project. There’s still a chance that the park will be saved, as President Obama could choose the University of Illinois’s plan. For that matter, rumors have it Michelle Obama wants the library to be built in New York, where Columbia already has the land.