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Race, class emerge as issues in Obama library battle

10:35 AM, Jul 8, 2013   |    comments
Wayne Watson, president of Chicago State University, wants President Obama to choose his campus to host his presidential library. Chicago State is in the heart of the city's Roseland neighborhood, where Obama worked as a community organizer as a young man. (Photo: Aamer Madhani, USA TODAY)
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CHICAGO - President Obama probably won't make a final decision on where his presidential library and museum will be located until near the end of his second term in the White House.

But here In his adopted hometown - particularly the neighborhoods where Obama made a name for himself as a community organizer before entering politics - the issues of race and class play a central role in the debate over where in the city the shrine to the first African-American president's legacy belongs.

"I think he has certainly benefited from his ties to the African-American community in terms of how of how he built his political career," said John Owens, a community organizer on the city's South Side who worked closely with a young Obama when he arrived in Chicago in the 1980s. "I am not saying that he owes everything to the African-American community, but he did get his start here, and this community was his political base. This is an opportunity for him to help the community where he started from."

There's no guarantee that Obama will even settle on the Windy City to host the library and museum. The president grew up in Honolulu, and the University of Hawaii has launched its own bid to win the library. The state has set aside one of the last undeveloped oceanfront plots in Honolulu to try to lure Obama.

What is clear to politicians and activists here is that the library has the potential to offer a huge economic boom that could transform whatever community the president settles on.

The William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum spurred $1 billion in real estate investment in downtown Little Rock. The George W. Bush Presidential Center on the Southern Methodist University campus, which opened in April, is projected to inject $50 million annually into the local economy, said Phillip Jones, chief executive officer of the Dallas Visitors and Convention Bureau.

It's that potential that draws activists and politicians in Obama's old stomping grounds to make the case that the president should remember the economically deprived neighborhoods he sought to change as a young man.

The University of Illinois-Chicago - the state's second-largest university on the city's Near West Side - confirmed last week that it has launched an exploratory committee to see how it might persuade Obama to build his library there. University officials declined to speak in detail about the effort.

Chicago State University, which is in the heart of the South Side neighborhood where Obama worked as a community organizer in the 1980s, announced in May it would make a spirited pitch to Obama that the school - a historically black university that draws students from some of the city's most impoverished communities - was the perfect place for Obama to bring his library.

Wayne Watson, Chicago State's president, recruited former state senator Emil Jones, who served as Obama's mentor when he was in the state Legislature, to join the exploratory committee. Watson dispatched one of his deans to Washington to talk to National Archives officials about the process and to Little Rock to pick the brains of the Clinton library officials.

The area around Chicago State, which has an unemployment rate that hovers around 30% and is among the city's most violent neighborhoods, would be resurrected by the economic jolt that would come from the hotels, restaurants and other economic development that would follow the library, Watson said.

"His political roots are right here on the South Side, pretty much in a 2-mile radius of where we are," Watson said. "Secondly, President Obama represents hope. ... If there is one community in Chicago that needs to have hope reinforced, it's the community where the president got his start."

The private University of Chicago, a leafy island in the city's Hyde Park neighborhood on the hard-scrabble South Side, is running a quiet campaign for the library with the assistance of Susan Sher, a former chief of staff to first lady Michelle Obama.

The Obamas have deep ties to the university. The president worked there for 12 years as a senior lecturer at its law school, and the first lady served as an executive at the university's medical center. In addition to Sher, David Axelrod, Obama's former political adviser, was hired by the university to lead a program intended to encourage students' interest in politics and public service.

The university declined to comment about its bid, saying it is premature to discuss the library. Sher and other university leaders have met with officials at the National Archives and Records Administration and have visited with officials at the recently opened George W. Bush library in Dallas.

Don Rose, a Chicago political consultant, said the University of Chicago has a long, complicated history with the surrounding poor and working-class African-American communities that have been pushed out as the university has expanded over the years. Rose suggested that the university, with its deep ties to the Obamas and proximity to downtown, is the favorite to win the library.

"From a practical sense, the University of Chicago seems like the logical choice," Rose said. "But on the other hand, if he wanted to make a bolder stroke, he could place it elsewhere on the South Side."

Anthony Beale, an alderman on the city's far South Side, said Obama choosing the University of Chicago - which boasted a $6.57 billion endowment at the end of the past fiscal year - was tantamount to "fattening up the frog."

"I think it would send a wonderful message if he could bring it on home and reward the community where he got his start rather than just giving it to the University of Chicago that already has everything," said Beale, who is on the Chicago State University exploratory committee.

Beale advocates for the project to be built a few miles off the Chicago State campus on the grounds of the dilapidated George Pullman state historic site, where the relics of the 19th-century sleeper car factory sit behind a chain-link fence.

Lester Coney, who helped raise more than $1 million for Obama's two presidential campaigns, has suggested building the library on yet another site on the South Side, the grounds of the former U.S. Steel plant , an enormous site several miles south of downtown that developers are eyeing to turn into a residential and retail hub.

Coney said the University of Chicago - with its political clout and track record on handling projects of this magnitude - is the right partner for Obama to work with on the library, "but I just struggle with seeing it as the right place to have that grand effect that his library can have."

Some residents in the city's Bronzeville neighborhood - an area steeped in the city's blues and jazz scene - want the library to be built on the site of a shuttered hospital.

The site, near the McCormick Place convention center and about 2 miles north of the University of Chicago, had been floated as the site to build the Olympic Village when the city made an unsuccessful bid for the 2016 Olympics.

More recently, during a community meeting, developers floated the possibility of building a casino there, said Harold Lucas, president of the Black Metropolis Convention & Tourism Council.

"Obama came to Chicago to learn how to be a community organizer," said Lucas, who wants the presidential library to be built on the old hospital site. "If he's truly that, the least he could do is put the presidential library somewhere in the black community where it can act as a catalyst."

Aamer Madhani, USA TODAY

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