Last month the Obama Presidential Center unveiled a new design aimed at satisfying critics of a previous design released last year. But the new design isn’t the only problem critics have with the plan. Politico Magazine reports that the Center is facing pushback from a determined community organizer in Chicago named Jeanette Taylor. Last September, Taylor even confronted Obama about it (via video conference) at a public meeting:
“The library is a great idea, but what about a community benefits agreement?” Taylor asked, referring to a contract between a developer and community organizations that requires investments in, or hiring from, a neighborhood where a project is built. “The first time investment comes to black communities, the first to get kicked out is low-income and working-class people. Why wouldn’t you sign a CBA to protect us?”
Measured as always, Obama began by telling Taylor, “I was a community organizer.” Then he said, “I know the neighborhood. I know that the minute you start saying, ‘Well, we’re thinking about signing something that will determine who’s getting jobs and contracts and this and that’ … next thing I know, I’ve got 20 organizations coming out of the woodwork.”
The answer infuriated Taylor, who pays $1,000 a month for the Woodlawn apartment she shares with her mother and two children, and is worried that the Obama Center’s cachet will drive up neighborhood rents. Months later, she is still furious at the former president.
“He got a lot of nerve saying that,” Taylor told me. “He forgotten who he is. He forgot the community got him where he is.”
Taylor is not alone in her complaint. Since 2016, more than a dozen local groups—neighborhood organizations, labor unions and tenants’ rights activists—have come together to form the Obama Library South Side Community Benefits Coalition, which is pushing the library to account for local needs. At the University of Chicago, where Obama once taught at the law school, more than 100 faculty members signed a letter in January supporting the demands of local organizers. “There are concerns that the Obama Center as currently planned will not provide the promised development or economic benefits to the neighborhoods,” the letter reads. “It looks to many neighbors that the only new jobs created will be as staff to the Obama Center.”
The irony of having Obama, the former community organizer in Chicago, being opposed by someone who has taken up his old job is not lost on Politico. “Obama now finds himself on the receiving end of the same demands his younger self once made to crusty Chicago politicians he derided as ‘ward heelers,'” the piece notes. In fact, the community organizers see the Obama Presidential Center as the leading edge of something that is of great concern to many left-wing activists: gentrification.
Woodlawn residents worry that their neighborhood is an ideal target for gentrification, and that the center will raise rents. Jeanette Taylor originally moved to Woodlawn because she was priced out of Bronzeville, a historically black neighborhood closer to downtown that Chicago Agent magazine calls “the next most-desired neighborhood for developers and homebuyers.” Taylor says she doesn’t want to move again, and she is surely not the only one—just 24 percent of Woodlawn residents own their homes.
The contract that community organizers are demanding—the “community benefits agreement”—would require the city to freeze property taxes within a 2-mile radius of the Obama Center and guarantee “a significant guaranteed set-aside of new housing for low-income housing in the area surrounding” the center. It would also require the foundation to establish a trust fund for nearby public schools and small businesses, and mandate that 80 percent of library construction jobs go to South Side residents.
As the neighborhood improves, more people will want to live there. It’s supply and demand and there’s no way around it except some kind of rent control policy. Obama will get his new landmark and people like Jeanette Taylor will see their rent go up. President Obama has gone from community organizer to bringer of gentrification in the same neighborhood. I wonder if he feels any differently about it now that it’s his project driving up local rents. Has he forgotten where he came from or just seen the issue it from a different perspective?