The circumstances around Chicago’s campaign to lure the Obama presidential library have proven especially complex for Friends of the Parks. Our enthusiasm about bringing this important institution to Chicago’s south side is unbridled. Of course we want to honor our first African-American president in the town and neighborhood that launched him to such heights and to invite appropriate investment to the surrounding communities. But our principles about parks remain firm: parks should be used for open space, recreation, and gardens rather than private buildings.
We are thrilled that 2015 brought an announcement that Chicago has been chosen as the library’s home. But Friends of the Parks still contends that it should not take away open space nor desecrate precious Frederick Law Olmsted-designed parks. We have suggested repeatedly that the many vacant parcels located immediately west of Washington Park—11 acres owned by the University of Chicago, the Chicago Transit Authority, and the Chicago—be used for the library. As have many presidential libraries in other cities, such new development on underutilized land represents a boon to the community without taking away our park land to do it.
Unfortunately, amidst the many voices on different sides of the issue during a contentious political campaign season, this complex message did not come across clearly. Also, our capacity was challenged as we and our parks were hit with two very visible threats backed by powers-that-be at the same time. Meanwhile, the organization had also just entered a period of transition upon the retirement of our legendary long-time leader. All of this, along with legal analysis that suggested that Friends of the Parks would not have a strong case in this matter, proved too significant a barrier.
While working to build stronger and deeper roots in communities to enhance coalitional advocacy work in the future, Friends of the Parks will continue to articulate our concerns as the Obama Foundation makes its final decision about the siting of the Presidential Center. At the very least, we seek to minimize the impact on the park chosen respect the architectural heritage of the historic South Parks system.
We call upon the Obamas—neighbors to many of us involved with Friends of the Parks—to remain true to their values and the president’s roots in grassroots organizing on Chicago’s south side. Let’s continue to build up our neighborhoods without diminishing the existing assets and respect the many years of investment that the community has put into our precious Washington and Jackson Parks.