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To Get the Obama Library, Chicago Needs the Help of Community Organizers

The South Shore Cultural Center, one potential Chicago location for the Obama Presidential Library   Photo: Alex Garcia/Chicago Tribune

A leak sprung on the Obama Presidential Library today. Before long the Sun-Times, the Tribune, and Crain’s all had updates on Columbia University taking the lead over Chicago’s two proposed sites, UIC (a long shot anyway) and the University of Chicago. It happened so fast that when Crain’s Greg Hinz wrote about it this afternoon, his piece was about how the city “raced” to “shore up” the problems that had been reported just an hour or so earlier.

As Hinz notes, one problem—not a new one—is that the University of Chicago, unlike Columbia, doesn’t own all the land that it has reportedly considered as possible sites for the library. Some of that land is parkland, and the Friends of the Parks has already tagged three potential park sites on its endangered-parks list. So it’s a political barrier, but not necessarily or likely an insurmountable one. (Interestingly, my colleague Carol Felsenthal reported another potential political barrier last month: she was told Valerie Jarrett supports Columbia because New York is “fun.")

More interesting is this, from Lynn Sweet’s report (emphasis mine):

As I’ve been reporting throughout the year–not based on official University of Chicago sources—that the University of Chicago proposed sites–at the South Shore Cultural Center and in Jackson and Washington Parks – are owned by the Chicago Park District.

This means that the University of Chicago strategy to win the library and museum–never officially asking the Chicago Park District for the land and keeping its sites secret until recently in order not to stir up public protest—is on track to backfire and prevent the school from even being in the running.

It would be no small irony if it did backfire on the U. of C. The Obama Library would seem to be a win-win for everyone, or at least everyone who’s not on board with the Friends of the Parks. But the university has long had a tense relationship with its neighboring neighborhoods, particularly with regards to development. And opposition to the university’s expansionary plans helped generate the tradition of community organizers Obama became a part of.

Obama worked for three years as a community organizer in the city, particularly in Roseland, farther south than the university. Saul Alinsky had died years earlier, but young Obama wasn’t that far separated from the legendary organizer; his mentors had been mentored by Alinsky himself, even if they (and Obama) drifted from many of Alinsky’s specific methods.

And Alinsky was a central figure in organizing Woodlawn, as he himself explained to Playboy in 1972:

The Woodlawn district of Chicago, which was a black ghetto every bit as bad as Back of the Yards had been in the Thirties. In 1958, a group of black leaders came to me and explained how desperate conditions were in Woodlawn and asked our help in organizing the community. At first, I hesitated; we had our hands full at the time, and besides, I’d never organized a black slum before and I was afraid my white skin might prove an insurmountable handicap. Friends of mine in the civil rights movement who knew I was considering the idea told me to forget it; nobody could organize Woodlawn; the place made Harlem look like Grosse Pointe; it was impossible. But there was only one way to find out: Try it. So the decision was go.

At first, it did look as if my whiteness might be a major obstacle, but then, as always, the good old establishment came to my rescue. The University of Chicago, which controlled huge hunks of real estate in the area, was trying to push through an urban-renewal program that would have driven out thousands of Woodlawn residents and made their property available for highly profitable real-estate development, which naturally made the U. of C. a universally hated and feared institution in Woodlawn. The saying in the ghetto then was “Urban renewal means Negro removal.”

As Alinsky told the magazine, getting blasted by the university he attended gave him the bona fides to organize an area in which he was a minority. And it worked.

We stopped the urban-renewal program; we launched a massive voter-registration drive for political power; we forced the city to improve substandard housing and to build new low-cost public housing; we won representation on decisionmaking bodies like the school board and anti-poverty agencies; we got large-scale job-training programs going; we brought about major improvements in sanitation, public health and police procedures. The Woodlawn Organization became the first community group not only to plan its own urban renewal but, even more important, to control the letting of contracts to building contractors; this meant that unless the contractors provided jobs for blacks, they wouldn’t get the contracts. It was touching to see how competing contractors suddenly discovered the principles of brotherhood and racial equality.

TWO became famous, and it left a legacy of community organization in the shadow of the University of Chicago. Robert Sampson, a former U. of C. sociologist now at Harvard, studied networks of community organization in his epic Great American City. And he found that it ranked high in levels of community cohesion.

Despite its continuing poverty, for example, Woodlawn ranks thirteenth (in the top quintile) in the city’s distribution of nonprofit organizational density. The Woodlawn Organization (TWO) is one of these organizations, formed back in the early 1960s when distrust of the University of Chicago ran deepest…. Although controversial and in some cases distrusted by local residents and accused of caving in to the interests of economic developers at the expense of long-term residents, there can be little doubt that TWO is a political and organizational force. The Key Informant study independently reveals that Woodlawn ranks highest in centralization of organizational contacts in 1995 and in the upper quartile in 2002—networks of influence converge on a small number of leaders within Woodlawn. The provocative alliances formed by TWO and other community organizations, presumably aided by their structural cohesiveness in network contacts, have combined with intervention from the University of Chicago to have sharply altered Woodlawn—for better or for worse.

As an example, organizations from the university community and surrounding communities have been protesting the lack of a trauma center at the university hospital for years, a protest that they tied into the university’s pursuit of the presidential library. And this month they seem to have scored a partial but significant victory, pushing the Children’s Hospital at the university to raise its age limit from 15 to 17.

In his lengthy profile of Obama for the New Yorker, Ryan Lizza spoke to former Obama aide Will Burns about the area:

His academic background was a burden, too. Will Burns explained, “Even though the University of Chicago is one of the largest employers on the South Side of Chicago, it is seen by some, particularly black nationalists, as a bastion of white political power, as a huge entity that doesn’t take into account the interests of the community, that doesn’t have a full democratic partnership with the community, and does what it wants to the community in maintaining clear boundaries about where black people are. It’s seen as an expansive force, trying to expand into Bronzeville and into Woodlawn”—historically black neighborhoods adjacent to Hyde Park—“and put poor blacks out of the area. The University of Chicago is not a brand that helps you if you’re trying to get votes on the South Side of Chicago.”

The University’s relationship to the surrounding neighborhoods isn’t as heated as it was when The Woodlawn Organization was founded. But that history runs deep, as do the ties of community organization that were strengthened by the university—as both a resource and a target. If it’s not careful in working with its neighbors, the kind of grassroots community organization that Barack Obama exemplified could mean his presidential library ends up elsewhere.


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