The long-delayed groundbreaking for the Obama Presidential Center kicked off Tuesday with a videotaped message from Barack Obama’s former vice president and current Commander-in-Chief Joe Biden.
Recalling Obama’s victory party, held in another Chicago 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 then walked out and took the podium, touting 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.”
In his remarks, Illinois Gov. J.B. 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.”
Next came Michelle Obama, who spoke of her own ties to the South Side, where she grew up: “One of my greatest honors is being a proud Chicagoan, a daughter of the South Side. I still lead with that descriptor. I wear it boldly and proudly.”
Finally, former President Barack Obama took the podium to talk about his first impressions of the city and how many important milestones — where he met and courted his future wife, the birth of his daughters, their first home and the kickoff of his first political campaign — all happened nearby.
“Chicago is where I found the purpose I’d been seeking,” he said. “Chicago is where everything most precious to me begins.”
In his reflections, Obama said the lesson he learned in Chicago, that change begins from the ground up, remains true today. He acknowledged that such community engagement can be “contentious,” but it is the building block of democracy — as well as his upcoming campus in Jackson Park.
”My experience in Chicago made me believe in the power of place, and the power of people,” Obama said. “Those beliefs guided all the way through my presidency, and they have shaped our vision for the Obama Presidential Center.”
He also insisted the complex, despite fierce opposition of its location from park preservationists, will “preserve and enhance Jackson Park.”
”We’ll reunify parkland, plant new trees, and provide new habitat for birds and wildlife,” Obama said. “But as Michelle noted, we are also going to open this park up to the community.”
Ahead of Tuesday afternoon’s groundbreaking, Obama reiterated the project’s potential to transform the South Side, with the same idealistic fire that catalyzed his own career in public service years ago.
The ceremony went off despite an enduring legal battle against his 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.
“We are ready to get going,” Barack Obama said in an interview released Tuesday morning by ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “And I am absolutely confident that when this thing is done … the young person who’s grown up across the street, or down the block, or a few miles away, now suddenly (has) a place where concerts and speeches and debates and forums are taking place.”
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.
Obama’s message of hope arrives at a South Side still aching from the coalescing crises of the coronavirus pandemic, the subsequent economic recession and a rise in violent crime, as well as recent civil unrest over police shootings. But in his interview, the nation’s first Black president said his center will not leave behind the community that launched his political journey.
“Something I wanted to get done that I couldn’t get done was get smarter, common-sense gun safety measures in place through Congress,” Obama said when asked about Chicago’s troubling homicides. “But what we can do is potentially give young people the sense that there’s another way for them to empower themselves. … Those young people matter.”
The ceremony will be livestreamed at 1:15 p.m. Tuesday at obama.org.
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 announced a protest was planned next to the Jackson Park site at noon Tuesday, in support of affordable housing measures for South Shore similar to the City Hall’s ordinance for Woodlawn renters and homeowners passed last year.
Nonetheless, the 44th president said his excitement prevails in the face of the local pushback. He argued that the majority of the neighbors want the center in the historic park sandwiched between Woodlawn and Lake Michigan.
“The truth is, anytime you do a big project, there’s always going to be some people who say, ‘Well, look, we don’t want change. We’re worried about it; we don’t know how it’s going to turn out,’” Obama said. “Which is why we’ve gone through such an exhaustive process to encourage and elicit comments and concerns.”
Chicago Ald. Leslie Hairston, whose 5th ward that covers part of South Shore, said “it’s a different approach” when asked whether her neighborhood requires a community benefits agreement modeled after Woodlawn’s. Hairston said Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration will be releasing a more detailed plain 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 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, four shovels were placed at the ready in on a patch of dirt slightly east of Stony Island Avenue, where garbage trucks covered up a tall fence. Meanwhile, 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.
The 19.3-acre, $700 million 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 center, 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 digitized.
An economic study commissioned by the Obama Foundation projected a $3.1 billion impact and roughly 700,000 annual visitors. Up to 5,000 “direct and indirect” jobs will also be created throughout the center’s construction, with a focus on workers hailing from the South and West sides, according to the foundation.
“This project has reminded us why the South Side and the people who live here are so special,” Michelle Obama said in a video Friday. “And it’s reaffirmed what Barack and I always believed: that the future here is as bright as it is, anywhere.”