As former President Barack Obama took the podium during his presidential centre’s long-delayed groundbreaking, he looked back on his first taste of the city that would forever shape him.
Also driving up the Chicago Skyway in a rickety car, slowing to a cruise upon entering the marvel that he considered Jackson Park.
Then came the important milestones that unfolded nearby during the next two decades cutting his teeth in politics through community organising, meeting and courting his future wife, and building a coalition that would eventually help elect the nation’s first black president.
On Tuesday afternoon, standing before four shovels and a mound of dirt in Jackson Park, Obama said the next chapter would be inspiring today’s young leaders through the future Obama Presidential Centre.
“Chicago is where I found the purpose I’d been seeking,” he said. “Chicago is where everything most precious to me began. It’s where I found a home.”
In his reflections, Obama said one lesson he learned in Chicago that progress began from the ground up remained true today in spite of the potential for such community engagement to get “contentious.”
It was in fact that push-and-pull that remains the chief building block of democracy, as well the backbone for his presidential campus, he said.
That was why he ultimately chose the South Side for its location, he said.
“It feels natural for Michelle and me to want to give back to Chicago and to the South Side, in particular, the place where she grew up and I came into my own,” Obama said.
“And the Obama Presidential Center is our way of repaying some of what this amazing city has given us.”
His wife, Michelle Obama, a South Shore native, said Tuesday’s groundbreaking was one step toward equalising her childhood neighbourhood’s access to world-class institutions and resources with that of the North Side’s.
“Even as a child, I understood this disparity,” said Obama, who like her husband was introduced at the event by a Chicago high school student.
“I continued to ask myself, why didn’t we have more places to gather and connect in our neighborhood? Why didn’t our part of town draw people from around the world just like Grant Park or Navy Pier, or the Art Institute? Why wasn’t there more investment in us?”
She also declared, “One of my greatest honours is being a proud Chicagoan, a daughter of the South Side. I still lead with that descriptor. I wear it boldly and proudly like a crown. See, to my mind, this city, this neighborhood, it courses through my veins.”
Before the couple addressed the public, Obama’s former vice president and current commander in chief, Joe Biden, gave a shout-out to Chicago with a videotaped message.
Recalling Obama’s first presidential election victory party in Grant Park in 2008, Biden said, “Hope and change are not just slogans and expectations.
“Hope and change is an ethos, a conviction. And that’s what today represents: It’s not just breaking ground on a new building. It’s breaking ground on the very idea of America as a place of possibility.”
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot kicked off the in-person remarks, celebrating what she said was the “transformative investment” of the presidential center.
“This groundbreaking marks the next chapter and a journey that began several years ago,” Lightfoot said.
“It took many twists and turns, but due to the perseverance, dedication, and hard work of many, we’ve arrived at this momentous day.”
And Illinois Governor JB Pritzker joked that the secretary of state will have to consider changing the state’s license plates to include Obama’s namesake.
“What a thrill it is to be here in Jackson Park to mark this historic groundbreaking,” Pritzker said.
“Thank you to all who have worked together to bring this second presidential center to Illinois which means, we are proudly now known as the Land of Lincoln and Obama.”
The ceremony went on in spite of an enduring legal battle against the Obama Foundation’s use of parkland and as local activists planned a protest outside the future site of the presidential center to call for more affordable housing protections.
Barack and Michelle Obama’s return to Chicago caps off a five-year journey to a groundbreaking that was expected to happen far earlier, with the center originally slated to open this year.
Instead, shovels only hit the ground last month after a legal bid to halt construction failed in the U.S., Supreme Court.
Opening day is now scheduled for 2025, but the park preservationists determined to get the Obama Foundation to relocate the campus remain confident in their latest pending lawsuit.
At the same time, the Obama Community Benefits Agreement Coalition, a group of activists demanding more protections for residents they fear will be displaced by the project, said they haven’t given up their fight either.
The coalition staged a protest next to the Jackson Park site at noon on Tuesday in support of affordable housing measures for South Shore, similar to the City Hall ordinance for Woodlawn renters and homeowners passed last year.
Nonetheless, the 44th president said his excitement prevails in the face of the local pushback, insisting that the complex, in spite of fierce opposition to its location from park preservationists, will “preserve and enhance Jackson Park.’’
“It will reunify parkland, plant new trees, provide new habitat for birds and wildlife,” Obama said.
“As Michelle noted, we are also going to open this park up to the community.”
And Chicago Alderman Leslie Hairston, whose 5th Ward covers part of South Shore, said: “it’s a different approach” when asked whether her neighbourhood requires a community benefits agreement modeled after the Woodlawn ordinance, as protesters demanded.
Hairston said Lightfoot’s administration will be releasing a more detailed plan on housing in South Shore within weeks.
“The demographics of South Shore are different than the demographics of Woodlawn, meaning there is no land to build anything in parts of South Shore, at least from 67th to 71st, from South Shore Drive to Stony Island (Avenue).’’
Hairston said this in an interview ahead of the ceremony. All of that land is full so we don’t have the same issues.
Before the start of Tuesday’s ceremony, a small aircraft carried a banner reading, “Stop cutting down trees.
Move OPC” in the sky above the small gathering of Obama Foundation and city officials. Hours later, Protect Our Parks, the group that is suing to stop the project, tweeted that the Obama Center will bring “devastation” to the park and the community.
“The homecoming of the former president and first lady should be a moment of pride for Chicagoans. On this visit, though, we hope they will mourn the devastation of the initial clear-cutting of the mature trees and the destruction of the Women’s Garden in Jackson Park, in addition to the long-term environmental and public health dangers that will ensue,” the group wrote.
The 19.3-acre, 700-million-dollar Obama Presidential Center will contain a 235-foot-tall tower housing the museum with artifacts from the former president’s upbringing, presidential campaigns and eight-year tenure in the White House.
A public forum and plaza, athletic and recreation centre, a new branch of the Chicago Public Library, play area, and sledding hill will also be built.
Obama departed from traditional presidential libraries by opting out of the National Archives and Records Administration’s network and its funds.
Instead, the official records from his time in the Oval Office will be digitised.
An economic study commissioned by the Obama Foundation projected a 3.1-billion-dollar impact and roughly 700,000 annual visitors.
Up to 5,000 “direct and indirect” jobs would also be created throughout the center’s construction, with a focus on workers hailing from the South and West sides, according to the foundation.
At the ceremony’s conclusion, Obama nodded to young activists across the world “rolling up their sleeves” for issues from climate change to racial equality, saying he has great faith in the promise of the next generation.
Then he declared, “Now, we’re going to grab some shovels and break some ground,” leading his wife, Lightfoot, and Pritzker as the four picked up shovels, and dirt was at last turned.